By Sandra Hutchinson
Americans began flocking to Cuba in 2009— after the Obama administration lifted some of the travel restrictions that had effectively banned most types of travel there by Americans since the early 1960s. In the fall of 2017, the Trump administration reversed some of the Obama era policies, reinstating the business and travel restrictions which had been loosened by the Obama Administration. Yet it is still possible and not terribly difficult for Americans to legally travel to Cuba.
The story of the relationship between the United States and Cuba is complicated and obviously not something I am looking to tackle on this blog. But I can share the experience that my family and I had when we spent a week in Cuba, arriving on December 30, 2017, and heading out on January 6, 2018.
We traveled under one of the twelve purposes that are allowed for Americans to travel to Cuba: “educational, people to people exchange.” What that means in reality for most US citizens is that they travel with a Cuban government-employed guide (and in our case, a driver as well), following an itinerary that meets the requirements of the US regulations governing American activities in Cuba, which prohibit strictly tourist activities like lounging on the beach.
We arranged our tour through a small travel agency based in Toronto, operated by Cuban nationals now living in Canada. As long as a company possesses the appropriate license issued by the US Treasury Department, even if it is not an American-based company, US citizens can legally visit Cuba on a trip arranged by that company if they follow an approved itinerary.
Even under the stricter Trump-administration travel rules, Americans can still travel without a group if they certify that they are going to the country for one of the listed reasons (such as journalism or humanitarian work). We chose to not go that route, even though we could have credibly argued a journalism purpose since we run a newspaper and members of our family post on various Web sites and blogs, but we preferred to have a guide and transportation already arranged, for ease of traveling and making the most of our limited time in the country.
We were fortunate in that our group was small— our family of five (my husband, me, our two 20-something sons, and one son’s significant other), plus two other American couples. Our itinerary required us to listen to presentations on Cuban history and architecture; we also visited several artists at their galleries and had the opportunity to not only view their work but interact with them. The focus of our trip was history, architecture, art and culture. We spent the first five days in Havana, and during that time we took a day trip to the Vinales Valley. We then headed to the southern coast to the Bay of Pigs, then onto Cienfuegos and Trinidad, both cities with UNESCO World Heritage status, where we spent the next two nights. On our way back to Havana we stopped in the fishing village where Ernest Hemingway kept his boat, El Pilar, and we visited his home. The last night and day was spent back in Havana.
Our Cuban guide, Erik Garcia, is in his early forties, and became a licensed guide after teaching school for a few years and then deciding to pursue a different career. He has never traveled to the United States. Over the course of the week, we got to know Erik well, learned about his family and young daughter, and very much enjoyed him. While he did provide insight into many of the societal and economic challenges facing the country and its citizens, we at times wondered how much of the story was the “party line.” After all, the Cuban government is highly repressive, there is no free press in Cuba (we understood there to only be two newspapers, both produced by the State); and people are routinely imprisoned who dare to speak out against or criticize the regime.
We also found that when we were told about challenges faced by average Cubans, such as not having sufficient food through the government rations or access to tangible goods, that the implication was that the American embargo was to blame. Indeed, the first billboard one sees while exiting the Havana airport displays a noose encircling the island of Cuba and describes the blockage, or embargo, and the “longest genocide in history.”
We were told by our guide that each Cuban receives government food rations each month, but that the amount is only sufficient for about two weeks. Beyond that, each family has to figure out how to pay for and secure food. Each Cuban, we were told, is guaranteed housing (although there are often several generations living in one apartment or home), and each family receives a government stipend each month to pay for basic utilities like electricity. While many people tout the Cuban health care as being universal and free, our guide told us he had only been to the dentist three times in his life and that when he has to go to a medical clinic, there is a long wait. Likewise, the official story is that all Cubans have access to higher education. When I asked how many young people actually attend college, I was told about one in twenty. For males, there is mandatory military service.
With State-employed guides, it is difficult to determine what is propaganda, and what is the truth. We even wondered whether our guide’s speaking through a microphone on our van was monitored. We were told that our driver could make no changes in the approved itinerary, and that his travel was monitored through GPS.
If your visit to Cuba only includes Havana, you’re only seeing a tiny portion of the country. Our impression was that cruise ships drop tourists off so they can walk through Old Havana, which seemed to us the most nicely maintained and restored area we saw throughout the week we were in the country. Whereas much of Havana is literally crumbling, because of lack of reinvestment in infrastructure, housing and buildings, Old Havana has been kept up, presumably to present itself attractively to tourists.
There are many piles of rubble and crumbling buildings throughout Havana, due to lack of funds for repair and reinvestment. Here, this crumbled building is across the street and behind the stately Capitol building.
Havana has many public monuments that celebrate the heroes of the Revolution. Here are two linear sculptures on the sides of government buildings in the Plaza de la Revolución depicting Che Guevara (“Until the everlasting victory, always”) and Camilo Cienfuegos (“You’re doing fine, Fidel”) The large public square is dominated by a tower dedicated to another Revolutionary hero, José Marti.
A word about restaurants—there are basically two kinds of restaurants in Cuba. The first, is the State-owned establishments, all of which serve essentially the same mediocre menu. There will usually be three entree choices (fish, chicken or beef); a small salad with tomato and cucumber; and rice and beans. Our experience with the State-owned restaurants included, without fail, a loud roving group of musicians that would play in front of our table during the meal. Oftentimes it was unwelcome and way too loud.
Fortunately, there are a number of independent restaurants, typically located in people’s residences, called paladares, that offer more innovative cuisine and often more interesting settings. The government has issued a limited number of licenses to allow these to exist, although we were told the licenses have been put on hold (one has to assume because they were drawing monies away from the terrible government restaurants). Our best meals took place in privately owned restaurants; one of our best lunches was prepared by the family of artist José Fuster at his home and gallery.
We also had an excellent dinner at a private restaurant across from the Riviera Hotel on the Malecon (the famous Havana roadway and seawall), where we had a great view of the chefs cooking behind a window. The swordfish and grouper were perfectly seared and prepared. It is called HM7, and is on the second floor.
As mentioned above, another memorable meal was at the home and gallery of Cuban artist José Rodriguez Fuster, in a lively pocket of Havana termed “Fusterville.” Here’s what Wikipedia says about the artist:
“Fuster has made a major contribution over 10 years of work of rebuilding and decorating the fishing town of Jaimanitas in the outskirts of Havana, where he lives. Jaimanitas is now a unique work of public art where Fuster has decorated over 80 houses with ornate murals and domes to suit the personality of his neighbours, he has built a chess park with giant boards and tables, The Artists’ Wall composed of a quilt of dozens of tiles signed and donated by other Cuban artists, a theatre and public swimming pools. Nowadays, Fuster’s art is a cherished part of Cuban culture and joins the rank of other public artworks such as that of Gaudi in Barcelona or that of Brâncuși in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu. He sponsors this project by the sale of his paintings and ceramics.”
Below are some photos taken at the artist’s home and gallery, where nearly every surface is covered with Fuster’s mosaics. We were fortunate to be able to meet and talk with the artist.
Day trip to Vinales Valley
We spent a day traveling to and touring around the Vinales Valley, a region in western Cuba marked by dramatic limestone hummocks and formations draped with greenery, caves and underground rivers, tobacco fields and other agricultural areas. There is a large national park here and many visitors go hiking, biking and horseback riding in the region.
Our group took a boat ride on an underground river through caves (no big deal) and then had lunch at a restaurant located at an immense mural within the Vinales National Park, painted on a large rock face. Evidently it took 18 people four years during the early 1960s to paint the mural that depicts prehistoric creatures. Despite this being highly touted in guide books, I would not recommend a special trip to see it.
The Vinales Valley is known for its countless casa particulars, or private homes that offer visitors lodging and meals. Spend a little time searching on the Internet and you can find ways to book these lodgings, including through Airbnb.
Cienfuegos and Trinidad
Heading southeast from Havana, to the coast on the opposite side of the island, we first visited the Bay of Pigs and the museum there (“Museo Giron”), which provides the Cuban take on the disastrous 1961 invasion, then we went on to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, both colonial cities with UNESCO World Heritage status.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion was, briefly, the disastrous failed attempt to overtake the government of Fidel Castro, by a Central Intelligence Agency-backed group made up largely of Cuban exiles who had fled to the United States after Castro’s takeover. The invasion plan had been approved by President John F. Kennedy, and is viewed as a major failure of US foreign policy.
We spent a short time in Cienfuegos, which was founded in 1819 by a French emigre from Louisiana, and families from both New Orleans and Bordeaux, France. The area built up tremendous wealth due to the sugar trade. We basically wandered around the central public square (Parque Jose Marti) , and stopped into the Teatro Tomas Terry, an ornate theater with nearly 1000 seats, built in the late 1880s, and still in active use. To our delight, a ballet company was rehearsing a performance.
After the first of two nights at a hotel outside Cienfuegos, we headed to Trinidad, a Spanish colonial town that remained quite isolated until the mid-20th century. We drove out of town to a visitors’ center for the Valle de los Ingenios, or “Valley of the Sugar Mills,” to view a lush and expansive landscape of a region that has produced sugar since the 18th century. This region is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the city of Trinidad, we took a walking tour with a City Historian of the central historic district, which includes a nicely preserved area of colorful stucco buildings, cobblestone streets, shops, restaurants and several museums.
We had a nice lunch with out group in Trinidad at El Dorado Restaurant, where a group of musicians was playing. We felt that this group, called Quinteto Isla, with three women and two men, was excellent. While the group did play what we learned was the mandatory song “Guantanamera,” they also did a nice rendition of “Despacito,” and we bought their CD.
Ernest Hemingway’s haunts
Returning from Trinidad to Havana, we stopped in Cojimar, the fishing village where Hemingway docked his wooden boat El Pilar. We had lunch at Restaurante La Terrazzo, where it is said Hemingway spend countless afternoons drinking with local fishermen like Anselmo Hernandez, the man who inspired him to create the character Santiago, the main character of his novel The Old Man and the Sea. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and was a factor in Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
After leaving the restaurant we headed to Hemingway’s home, Finca La Vigia, where Hemingway lived for over 20 years, and where he wrote a number of his books. Visitors are not allowed inside the home, but they stand outside the windows and peer in. Interestingly, there appeared to be no climate control for the home, thus making us wonder how long the many artifacts on display, including Hemingway’s Corona typewriter, papers and books, will withstand the ravages of humidity and temperature fluctuations.
On our last day in Cuba, we had some free time and ventured over by vintage taxi to the Hotel Nacional. Looming above the Malecon, and with a view of the sea, the hotel opened in 1930 and was designed by the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White. It was the site of a violent siege in 1933 involving Cuban army officers fighting against supporters of former President Fulgencio Batista.
A word on our hotel, Hotel Habana Riviera.
Our tour company booked us at the Hotel Riviera, located on the Malecon (seawall and roadway), about a ten minute taxi ride from Old Havana. Famously built by American mobster Meyer Lansky in 1957, it was built as a casino hotel to rival properties in Las Vegas. Many famous musicians and acts performed at the hotel before it was confiscated by Fidel Castro following the revolution. The hotel is tired, damaged in various ways from both storms and lack of reinvestment and repair, and has a pervasive mold smell in the ubiquitous dark blue carpeting.
A few notes:
If we were to return to Cuba, we would definitely plan the trip on our own and stay in private lodgings. Now that we have the lay of the land, so to speak, it would be much easier for us to navigate and figure out the best way to approach this.
The US Dept. of State has published a list of hotels, stores and other entities at which financial transactions by Americans are prohibited. Click on this link to see it.
American credit cards are not accepted in Cuba because of US Treasury restrictions. It is strictly a cash economy for American travelers. There are two types of Cuban currency — the Cuban Convertible peso (“CUC”) , and the Cuban peso. The CUC is roughly scaled to be on par with the American dollar and is the currency used by visitors. Unfortunately for Americans, there is a 10% penalty charged when you convert US dollars to CUCs. Each time we changed US dollars to CUCs at our hotel, more than that — 13% — was automatically deducted. Some visitors convert US dollars into euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds before arriving in Cuba to minimize penalty.
Don’t be afraid to hail a vintage taxi. You should negotiate the price before you get in. Riding along the Malecon in a ’57 Chevy or Ford is a must-do experience.
The Havana airport is chaotic. Upon entering the country, you and your belongings are subject to search. Many of the female customs/ entry agents, interestingly, were dressed in short skirts and fishnet stockings. One of our sons was pulled out of the line while going through security to leave Cuba, and all his belongings thoroughly checked.
Internet and Wifi service can be difficult to come by. We could purchase Wifi cards at our hotel, which supposedly allowed us to log onto the Internet via hotel Wifi, once we entered the code on the card. It was problematic and not reliable, and only available in certain parts of the hotel, like the lobby.