We (U.S. citizens Bill and Rita) visited Cuba for eight days via Cancun, Mexico in November 2013. As part of the U.S. embargo of the Communist Cuban government, our government restricts travel of its citizens to Cuba. You must have a “travel license” and be part of an organized tour. There is an approved list of U.S. tour companies, but we decided to use a Canadian company, Zunzun Educational Services of Vancouver, because its prices were hundreds of dollars less expensive than American counterparts.
Why did we decide to travel to Cuba? Because – we love a challenge; Cuba is a beautiful country with energetic people; we knew it would be warmer than Colorado Springs in November; Cuba would be added to our list of countries visited; and our neighbor to the South will change radically when the embargo is lifted – we wanted to see it now.
Changes made by the White House in 2011 make it easier to visit Cuba. Legal travel can be accomplished through a do-it-yourself General License for research, education, or religious travel. There also is a Specific License but don’t go there – 52 page document, 6-week processing time, frequent rejections. Rita and Bill filled out a “General Research License Travel Affidavit.” We submitted this to no one since third-party approval of our travel affidavit was not necessary. The travel affidavit was only for U.S. Immigration upon returned to the U.S. Our visit was under “education,” and we attached letters from our respective education-related “sponsors” to the one-page travel affidavit. We would show this document to U.S. Immigration upon return if they asked for it (they did not). We purchased a visa, known as a Cuban Tourist Card, for US$ 25 at the Cancun airport. The Tourist Card is a separate two-part document, not a stamp in your passport. One part was kept by Cuban Immigration upon arrival, the second taken upon departure. No problems entering Cuba; the attractive female official smiled and said “welcome” when she handed Bill his passport. Documentation for reentering the U.S. is a Customs Declaration, which asks the countries we had visited. We put “Mexico and Cuba,” having been warned that denying time in Cuba could have severe repercussions if you are discovered. We were hard pressed for time to our connecting flight when we returned through Houston, but we had no problems. Immigration asked, “You don’t have any Cuban cigars, do you?” Bill had been forewarned and could truthfully say, “No Cuban cigars sir!”
Our tour group was large for us – 22 (no wait, 24 after pick up of the couple forgotten at the airport). The tour was “Introduction to Cuban Culture and Nature,” and by tour’s end even Bill (no fan of organized tours) gave the tour a thumbs up. The tour included accommodations (fine hotel in Havana, resort in Trinidad), all meals (usually 2 items to choose from plus one drink – Bill chose beer), transport on a huge tourist bus, a variety of excursions, a Cuban and an American guide, flights between Cancun and Havana, and (most important for Rita) two half-liter bottles of water per day.
Spending money was interesting. Cuba has two kinds of pesos: ordinary Cuban pesos used by most Cubans and Cuban Convertible Currency (CUCs), the pesos used by tourists. A CUC equals 25 Cuban pesos (we never got involved in that exchange). There is a 10% surcharge for converting US$ to Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) so we took Canadian $. We had no problems since most everything was covered in the tour. Most of our CUCS were spent in the form of tips. By the time you figure in exchange costs, one CUC equaled about US$1.15.
Nights 1-4 and 7, we stayed in Old Town Havana at the Palacia O’Farrill Hotel, build in 1909. A wonderful (and air conditioned) hotel in the world heritage site section of Havana – founded in 1592, numerous 1950’s Chevy taxis. Our balconies overlooked the center of Cuban activity. Roof patios full of barking dogs and puppies and women hanging laundry; narrow streets with carts of fruit moving to market and people moving about. Bill enjoyed the Saturday night noise, Rita ear plugged it. Night 5-6 – Las Brisas Resort in Trinidad, an all-inclusive tourist resort. Bill – thumbs down (as far from Cuban culture or nature as you can get), Rita – thumbs up (beach).
Cuba, the country, is a category all by itself. The world is divided into developed countries and developing countries. Cuba is a “not developing, yet” country. Cuba is a Communist country with free education/health care/rations of staples. Under Raul Castro, private business is making baby steps. Running out of things is still the norm. Schedules must be flexible as in “where are the trucks? Professionals make $40/month U.S. equivalent; our bus driver pulls in 6x that in tips. Activity of ordinary Cubans – waiting for transport with fee in hand, walking with plastic bags full of stuff, peering out of doorways or balconies. We saw one 6-lane, one 4-land road; there is virtually no intercity traffic. Other roads are narrow 2-lane road populated with bikes, horses, old cars/trucks, and rice drying on the road. Our Chinese-made bus covered one lane plus. Central Cuba has more working horses than motor vehicles. The economy, devastated in the early 90’s when the supporting state the USSR collapsed, has a long way to go.
Best activity: muddy dirt road ride though the rain forest on open-air Soviet military trucks through Escambray Mountains in central Cuba plus a walk through the rain forest including a coffee plantation. (Bill brushed his teeth with a leaf.) Good decision on day one to skip the museum tour in favor of walking the streets taking photos and talking to the people. Best meal: roasted-on-a-spit pig at Hacienda Codina, same mountains. Also cannon firing ceremony, Hemingway villa, Cabaret Parisien show, Vinales Valley (tobacco farm), crocodile reserve, caves, pottery factory, Cienfuegos (1819) city center, and Trinidad (1514). Impressions of Trinidad: colorful houses; many horses and buggies; plentiful shops selling vibrant wares such as linens, pottery, woodwork, wooden jewelry, T-shirts; live music and dancing in the plazas.
People highlights: Presentation to our group by professor Marta Nunez, the only one in her elite high school class of 24 who remained in Cuba after the 1959 Revolution. As a teenager, she helped move Cuba to 96% literacy by teaching people to read as part of a national effort. And there was our indispensable guide, 20-something Danilo, who shared his insights and helped Bill with his Spanish – “asere, que bola?” (what’s up dude?)
Healthier now than when we started due to abundance of fresh fruit/fruit juices plus plenty of organically-grown vegetables and exercise. Bill’s Cuban Revolution – eat fruit at every meal. All meals provided, only one Cuban meal by ourselves.
Some challenges: Two days to get there; two days to get back. Flight on Cubana airlines from Cancun was 50 minutes; Rita waited two hours to recover her checked luggage (one carousel for all fights), which she greeted with a big “hola” to applause of hundreds still waiting. Cubana airlines is notorious for delaying flights; with us it was two for two, a lot of waiting. The International airport in Havana (1/3 the size of Colorado Springs airport) is undergoing an update which will take it from circa 1948 to about 1952. The women’s bathroom is under repair; both men and women used “hombres” toilets at the same time (worked surprisingly well). Our four-star hotel had a few quirks – water dripping from the ceiling and a shower which shuttled water to the floor by the gallon. We couldn’t find our first floor room 101 upon return to the O’Farrill. Not reachable like the rest of the rooms from the elevator, you had to climb or descend the stairs. But when we did find it, there was a reward – they had given us a suite. Elevator warning – when the steel door closes, you should be either in or out of the elevator; putting your arm in the door to stop closure will result in a lost limb.
We tried our Spanish with limited success. Rita was able to order mild food, “Necesito la comida sencilla.” Bill was able to answer the most popular question, “Where are you from?” but it went downhill from there.
Most fun Bill – playing with the kids and entering a Cuban household by invitation. Most fun Rita – beach walk and swimming, hiking in the Rain Forest, learning medicinal uses of the plants, giving away a few items to lighten the suitcase.
Bill likes to keep track of expenses so here is his report: Tour $2595. Grand total for Bill $4020 (includes air fare Denver-Cancun and return, two nights Cancun, two meals Cancun, compulsory medical insurance, tips, souvenirs ($5), parking, tolls, airport taxes, house/pet sitter, and photo book). Worth the money according to Bill, but he remembers the $1400 he spent for 20 days exploring Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary in 2008 (frequent flyer miles used).
Conclusion: Great visit. Bill and Rita advice: go see Cuba. More photos.