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Visiting Cuba Should be on Everyone's Bucket List! (579 hits)

Watching the sun set over Havana while savoring a prototypical, when-in-Cuba experience — sipping a mojito and smoking a Cohiba on the grounds of the iconic Hotel Nacional — it dawned on me how much the city has changed in the 25 years since my last visit.

And not in a good way.

Havana, which already looked like it was stuck in a 1950s time warp, now resembles an ancient ruin.

With its crumbling buildings, abandoned factories and ramshackle roads, much of Cuba’s capital city is in a dire state of disrepair, thanks to years of hardship under Communist rule and the lingering effects of more than a half-century of the U.S. economic embargo.

Which makes this the perfect time to visit Cuba.

As the island’s veil of mystery is slowly lifted now that the Obama administration has re-established relations with the Castro regime, American travelers with a taste for forbidden fruit can finally experience the reality of life there — before the inevitable McDonald’s opens in Havana’s first mega-mall.
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Havana’s infrastructure is in ruins from years of neglect. (Robert Dominguez)

The embargo is still in place, however, and likely will be for a long time. It’s actually Congress’ call, not the White House.

So while it’s nice to think that change is imminent, unless you run with the President, Mick Jagger or the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team — all set to visit Cuba later this month on “official" business” — the ways a U.S. citizen can legally get there remain strictly limited for now.

For most travelers with Cuba high on their bucket lists, the best — and likely only — way to go is through so-called “people-to-people” programs that focus on educational and cultural exchanges with everyday Cuban citizens.

A word of warning: Folks picturing a lazy, rum-soaked Caribbean getaway filled with sunbathing, shopping and salsa lessons by the pool are in for a major letdown.

A typical people-to-people itinerary, as mandated by the U.S. government, means you’re required to stay with your group the entire day as tour guides bring you to historic sites, museums, schools, artist studios, farm cooperatives and other places that provide a rare glimpse into a way of life that has been closed to Americans for generations.
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For most travelers with Cuba high on their bucket lists, the best — and likely only — way to go is through so-called “people-to-people” programs that focus on educational and cultural exchanges with everyday Cuban citizens. (Robert Dominguez)

Like most U.S. operators authorized to sponsor Cuba tours with the recent easing of travel restrictions, Friendly Planet Travel offers a selection of packages centered on Havana as the main destination.

The briefest and least expensive is “Discover Havana,” a six-day sojourn that begins with an orientation in Miami and gives you four full days to experience the city and select surrounding sites.

From the moment the charter flight touches down at Jose Martí International Airport outside Havana, it’s as if you’ve been transported back in time: A never-ending parade of classic American cars from the 1950s chug along Havana’s near empty roads at all hours.

With engines seemingly composed of tin cans, rubber bands and salvaged parts from old Soviet-era cars, these vintage autos — many of which serve as taxis and are a fun and relatively inexpensive way to cruise the city — aren’t just a testament to Cubans’ mechanical ingenuity in the face of scarcity.

They’re enduring symbols of the long rift between Cuba and the U.S. that started soon after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
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Symbols of the Castro regime and its long rift with the U.S. government are everywhere. (Robert Dominguez)

They’re also just about the only cultural touchstone that has fared fairly well since the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden end of its decades-long economic patronage plunged the island into a severe financial crisis still felt today.

With a lack of government funds to rebuild its infrastructure, your first impression of Havana is that it seems a slum. Even the buildings that haven’t collapsed from decades of neglect look like they haven’t been painted since the Castro brothers were giving the Kennedy brothers fits.

That sadly includes sections of Old Havana, the 500-year-old Spanish-colonial neighborhood and UNESCO World Heritage site where much of the architecture has been continually restored even in the worst of times.

Yet in a perverse way, the urban decay is a huge part of the city’s unique charm — and why travelers will get the most out of their trip if they come with low expectations for luxury trappings and a high sense of adventure.

That’s not to say conditions are primitive, at least not for tourists. Accommodations for the Discover Havana tour, in fact, are at the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which has been lovingly kept up by the government to look like it did in its pre-Revolution heyday when the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and mobster Meyer Lansky were regular guests.

The food in Havana, while simple and nowhere near gourmet, is often quite delicious. Whether it’s lunch with your tour group or dinners on your own in the evening, good meals can be had at a variety of “paradors,” the small, privately owned restaurants that are part of the government’s recent initiative to encourage entrepreneurship.

Just don’t expect steak or a green salad — both are in short supply on the island — or much variation on traditional Cuban pork, chicken and fish dishes served with white rice and black beans.

Though much of the day is spent soaking in the culture and history on an official basis — like a walking tour of Old Havana, a visit to a cooperative organic garden, or a private performance by a classical dance company in a black-box theater — you do get the chance to do a little exploring on your own in the evening.

Your best bet: Enjoy the authentic Cuban music, whether it’s the talented local groups who entertain diners at paradors or the crowd at jazz bars; the members of the Buena Vista Social Club, who perform nightly in an Old Havana nightclub; or the glitz and glamour of the sultry showgirls (and showboys) at the Tropicana, the iconic outdoor cabaret that stands as the only holdover from Havana’s bad old days before Fidel shuttered the mob-run casinos and clubs.

The entertainment isn’t merely divine, it’s amazingly cheap. A $10 cover at a local jazz club included two drinks — try finding that in Manhattan — while the dazzling, Vegas-worthy, two-hour show at the Tropicana, a relatively cheap $80, came with enough “free” rum to more than satisfy a table of eight thirsty Americans.
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Distinct Cuban specialties include mojitos, black coffee and cigars. (Robert Dominguez)

But for a real taste of Havana, nothing beats the simple pleasure of standing in the rear garden of the Nacional at dusk, a good Cuban cigar in one hand and a strong mojito in the other, and watching the waves crash against the Malecón, the famed seawall overlooking the Caribbean, as a warm tropical breeze blows across the city.

It felt like a fresh wind of change promising better things to come for Cuba and its people.

If you go...

Book: People-to-people culture tours afford Americans the chance to experience Cuba without violating U.S. laws prohibiting tourist travel — but these trips can be pricey.

Friendly Planet’s packages range from $2,999 per person for a six-day journey to $3,999 for nine days and a more extensive itinerary.
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A woman stands near the water by Havana's famed seawall, the Malecón. (Robert Dominguez)

The guided tours, which max out at 24 people, include airfares, hotels and most meals. The company arranges for all paperwork, including visas. Go to friendlyplanet.com for info.

Money and credit cards: Cuba has two currencies, one for citizens and the other for visitors — the Convertible Cuban Peso (CUC, pronounced “kook”).

You can exchange your dollars to CUC at airports, hotels, banks and exchange offices at the same rate everywhere. One CUC is worth $1, but expect a 10% surcharge.

Credit and debit cards issued by U.S. banks are technically allowed in Cuba — but good luck finding a pace that accepts them. Better to bring more cash than you think you’ll need.

Internet and cellphones: Cuba’s wireless capabilities are notoriously spotty. Your best bet is to pay the fee at your hotel to use the Internet (it was 12 CUC for 12 hours at the Nacional).

And your cellphone plan won’t likely work, though Verizon does allow international calls for $3.99 a minute.

Cigars: The U.S. government now allows travelers to bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars.
Posted By: Will Moss
Friday, June 10th 2016 at 4:04PM
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