As our airplane approached the Havana Airport a flight attendant announced that he wished to be the first to welcome us to Cuba. The passengers burst into cheering and applause, which was repeated when the wheels touched down a few minutes later. We weren’t used to such enthusiasm, and we asked the flight attendants about it. It happens all the time, they told us, Cubans are very proud of their country. That became clear as we explored Cuba – this is a complex country filled with gracious and resourceful people. That, and many other things, hasn’t changed much for more than a half century.
Ours was not a particularly easy trip, but it left us with mostly favorable impressions and fond memories. We met wonderful people, enjoyed the 1950’s cars and ever-present salsa music, and appreciated the genuineness of a land that time forgot.
It’s a little tricky for Americans to get to Cuba. Despite what you may have heard Americans are not yet allowed to go to Cuba for pleasure travel. Instead, there are 12 categories of authorized travel, and only people who meet one or more of them are permitted to go to Cuba. We applied to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for authorization to travel to Cuba as journalists, and we sent them our resumes, evidence we had written and published travel articles, and an assignment letter from a travel magazine. In response, we received a letter that quoted the current U.S. laws and stated that if we felt we met those laws we could proceed without further authorization. So, after telephone conversations with staff from the Treasury Department, we made airline reservations and booked with a tour group.
What we didn’t know, and what the Department of the Treasury didn’t say, is Americans are not allowed (as of May, 2016) to use credit cards, debit cards, ATMs, banks, or money transfer facilities in Cuba. So, at least for now, travel within Cuba is a cash-based experience.
Flying to Cuba is also a little tricky. Currently, there are no commercial flights from the U.S., and the alternatives include charter flights or flying through other countries, such as Canada or Mexico. That will soon change, and by the end of 2016 there will likely be U.S. carriers flying commercial flights to and from Cuba.
Our 40-minute charter airline flight from Miami to Havana cost between $400-500 (round trip) per person, plus $100 for a visa and a departure fee of $50.
Land of Surprises
We signed up for an eight-day bicycle tour of Cuba put together by Explore, a U.K. tour company (www.explore.co.uk). Explore contracted with a Cuban company to supply a tour leader, bus, bus driver, and bicycles. Our tour package included transportation, bicycle rental, lodging, and breakfast. We were on the hook for all other expenses, including two meals a day. We were joined by a tour leader (Lismar), driver (Eric), and three other tour customers (Kate and Catherine from the U.K., and Hamish, an Aussie who now lives in New York City). It was a small and fun-loving group and we supported each other throughout the tour. Our primary responsibility for the next eight days was to show up, cycle, and enjoy our tour.
We started in Havana, not at the stately hotel in old town described in the tour package, but at a “modern” place in the outskirts of town. It turns out the local tour agency had been forced to switch hotels at the last minute, and our “modern” hotel looked good on the outside but our room was less than “modern.” There was water on our bathroom floor, no hot water until 6:00 PM, no TP, no bottled water (Americans shouldn’t drink the water in Cuba), and furniture and furnishings from the 1960’s. A call to the front desk resolved most of the issues, but our experience throughout Cuba was that most of the hotels aren’t yet up to U.S. standards.
The next morning, we rode by bus to the Zapata Peninsula, south and east of Havana, where we cycled along the Caribbean coast to the Bay of Pigs. Along the way, we were treated to views of turquoise waters, nearly-deserted beaches, and thousands of migrating crabs making their way to the forest to mate and lay their eggs. We also cycled past billboards and monuments dedicated to the battles of the Cuban Revolution and the glory of Cuba when it defeated the “Yanqui imperalists” in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. At the end of our ride, Lismar led us to a cove where we swam in the temperate waters of this beautiful bay.
There are few cars on the roads in Cuba and many of them are from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Most of them are in beautiful condition and kept running by shade tree mechanics, jury-rigged parts, and good luck. It's a bit of a time warp to cycle down a road and be passed by a 1952 Chevy, or a motorcycle from the 1950’s with a side car, or a farm truck from the 1960’s. We eventually got used to the old vehicles, but we never really adjusted to seeing farmers heading to town in horse-drawn wagons, or working their fields with oxen.
We spent the night in Yaguanabo, near the colonial city of Cienfuegos, in south-central Cuba. Cienfuegos is a beautiful city on a natural harbor with a central park where locals sit, talk, and enjoy the evening while their houses cool. This colonial city was founded by French immigrants, and the buildings around the central square have French influence. In the middle of the plaza stands a prominent statue of Cuban hero, Jose Marti. We toured the Palacio de Valle, a bizarre Moroccan-style mansion, built in 1890 by a wealthy businessman, with lavish decorations, gothic pillars, a tower with battlements, and stained-glass windows.
Dinner was typical of our meals throughout the tour – a self-serve buffet with rice, beans, pork, seafood, or chicken, and a choice of desserts. All of our meals were well-prepared, flavorful, plentiful, and reasonably-priced. Local musicians often entertained us at meals (for tips) with salsa tunes.
If you go to Cuba …* Get authorization from the U.S. government
* Take lots of cash, because U.S. payment cards aren’t accepted (as of May, 2016)
* The best weather months are November through March
* Most Cubans don’t speak English, so learn some Spanish or take a phrase book
* Be prepared for surprises and disappointments
Quest for Cash
Prior to leaving the US, we checked U.S. regulations on credit card use in Cuba and called our credit and debit card issuers. Although we were told that few merchants in Cuba accept cards, we were led to believe that we would be able to get cash in Cuba, and our banks assured us they would approve ATM transactions. So we arrived in Cuba with enough cash for 3-4 days, and we planned to use ATMs to supplement that. After landing in Havana, we tried to get local currency (pesos) from the ATM at the airport. We were turned down. “No aceptar” was a term we would come to know too well.
Because few Cuban merchants accept cards, virtually all transactions are cash-based. While things are generally less expensive in Cuba, two meals and miscellaneous expenses cost us around US$50 per person per day. We were able to exchange our U.S. dollars for pesos (Cuban pesos are worth a little more than the U.S. dollar), but we were running out of cash.
On our third day our guide found an ATM, which we tried to use with our debit and credit cards. Again “No aceptar.” So we went into a bank, where we were told our U.S.-issued credit and debit cards were not valid in Cuba. Our only recourse, we were told, was to go to Western Union, which we did, and we had to impose on a relative in the U.S. to transfer funds to our guide in order to get cash.
It was May, which is the start of summer in Cuba. The weather was hot and humid, and it was hard to stay hydrated as we pedaled through sun baked cattle country, mist-covered hills, and small villages where locals boarded truck beds on their way to work the farms. Life seems harsh in Cuba’s heartland. Eventually, we arrived in Trinidad, a beautiful old city, where we spent the next two days. Because Trinidad has a hotel shortage, we stayed in a spare bedroom with a local family. Ana, our hostess, raises two children by herself (including an eight-year-old boy who seems to need a lot of scolding), and takes in laundry and overnight guests to help support her family. Our room was clean, but sparse, and furnished with 1950’s furniture. We used our day off to swim in the warm Caribbean waters and explore this very colorful city.
Established in 1514, Trinidad has narrow cobblestone streets filled with friendly people and every imaginable type of transportation including horse-drawn wagons, 1950’s Chevys and Plymouths, bicycle taxis, and motorcycles. We enjoyed the colorful homes – blue, yellow, green, pink – and we learned how to mix mojitos and daiquiris in a bar where Hemmingway drank. We ate lobster and pork at an outdoor restaurant and were entertained by another of the seemingly endless salsa bands. This one consisted of four men who wore Panama hats and played a guitar, a small 12-string guitar called a laud, a man-size double bass, and a gourd called a guiro, which is scraped by a stick to produce rhythm. The man playing the double bass wore an enormous smile, made even more brilliant by his perfectly-white dentures. During a break in the music, the band was introduced and the bass player (who is 87), smiled even larger as his name was called.
Farm Country and Santa Clara
From Trinidad, we cycled through the Valle de los Ingenios (valley of the sugar mills). This nearly deserted valley is bordered by the eastern slopes of the Sierra del Escambray (from where Che Guevara launched the anti-government revolution in 1958), and it was once one of Cuba’s most productive agricultural areas. Today, most of the sugar mills are gone, and all that remains is a forty-foot tower, once used to oversee slaves working in the sugar cane fields. Our cycling ended at Sancti Spiritus, one of Cuba’s seven original colonial towns, where we rejoined our bus and rode to Mayajigua for an overnight stay. This is rural Cuba, made up of small farms, humble homes, and gracious people, who waved at and greeted us. As in the cities, we felt no hostility toward Americans, and virtually everyone was friendly and seemed happy to see us.
Marti, Che, and Fidel
Leaving Mayajigua, we cycled on flat, smooth roads through farmlands – corn, cocoanuts, bananas, and vegetables. Here life seems quiet and plain: small wooden houses with attached outhouses, rocking chairs on front porches, dirt paths that lead to front doors, and windows and doors left open to let breezes through. We saw horse wagons in front of many homes and stables in the back, and it was common to see locals heading to town on horses-drawn wagons or bicycles. Villages appeared every few miles with small wooden houses, narrow dirt streets, a few stores, and a church.
Dark clouds gathered and moved slowly across the sky. Locals moved under porches or store fronts. Rain started falling, light at first, then heavy, and it poured for an hour or so. On we rode, getting soaked. Finally the rain let up and the road steamed in the hot sun. We reached our destination and rejoined our bus which took us on a long causeway road to the islands of Cayo Santa Maria, where we enjoyed the sun on a beautiful and nearly-deserted beach. Relaxed, we re-boarded the bus for a two-hour ride and our overnight stay at Santa Clara, the capital city of the Villa Clara province.
Like most countries, Cuba has its heroes – especially Jose Marti, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro – and Lismar spoke in hushed, respectful tones when he discussed them. Santa Clara is where a crucial battle took place during the Cuban revolution, and it is also the final resting place of Che Gueverra, the Marxist revolutionary who allied with Fidel Castro. The monument to Che in Santa Clara is sacred. Photos are not allowed and visitors remove their hats and silently, almost reverently, circle the mausoleum, reading about Che and his time as a guerrilla.
Salsa, Good Food, and Time with Neighbors
That night, back in Havana, our tour leader told us a story which in a way sums up the conditions we found in Cuba. Last year a tour member from Switzerland told him she wished she could trade her situation for the stress-free lifestyle in Cuba. OK, he told her, let's see how that would work. First, you would give up your credit and debit cards. Next, take away your car and replace it with a 1952 Chevy without power steering or air conditioning that breaks down frequently and has no replacement parts. You would work at a clerical or farm job 50-60 hours a week, earning around $30 per month. Your home would consist of around 500 square feet, with unpainted concrete walls, little furniture, and no air conditioning. Time off and vacations? … forget about it … you can’t afford to travel, and if you don't work, you don't get paid. Now … how is your stress level?
But, despite hard lives and few luxuries, we found the Cuban people to be friendly and content. Their basic needs are taken care of and they love salsa music, good food, and time with friends and neighbors. We were not approached by beggars, and we did not see any homelessness. And, despite every reason to hold a grudge against America, we were accepted and treated like welcome guests. Many Cubans we spoke to said they are looking forward to improved relations with the U.S. and they expect better times to come.
On our last night in Havana, we hailed a taxi to take us downtown for one more meal and a little more music. The car turned out to be a 1953 turquoise-and-white Chevy, and the driver was a middle-age family man who wanted to practice his English. So we talked to him as we cruised downtown, telling him about our time in Cuba and listening to stories about his family. He dropped us off at our restaurant and asked if we wanted him to take us back home. Sure, we replied, but we won’t finish dinner until around 10:00. That’s fine, he said, I’ll be right here at 10:00. And sure enough, there he was … waiting for us with his beautiful car and huge smile. On the drive to our hotel, as we cruised along the Malecon (waterfront), waves splashed into our lane and he turned up the radio. He loves American music – especially from the 60’s and 70’s -- and tonight he was playing the Eagles. Hotel California came on and we sang along with him:
Last thing I remember,
I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
"Relax," said the night man,
"We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”