Why You Should Get to Cuba Now!

I have a Cuban hangover. I’m sitting in my easy chair early in the morning, drinking black Cuban coffee and listening to Cuban music while looking at the photos I took on our trip.

I didn’t have anything to drink last night, but Cuba has seeped into me, and I don’t seem to be able to get it out. We’ve been home now for days, and all I can think about is drinking rum on a balcony in Havana, dancing to music at our landlady’s birthday party, with the fantastical crumbling city below us.

Or swaying to the guitars, ballads and conga drums on the open-air plaza in the ancient town of Trinidad, where music plays for free all day and night. You can buy a drink if you want one. Or not.

When I arrived on the stone plaza steps in the morning, I asked a waiter what time the music would start playing. He just looked at me quizzically, as if maybe I were dull-witted. “All the time,” he said. And, sure enough, it started a few minutes later and didn’t stop until after midnight. You don’t need to go to the plaza to hear music, though. It pours out of every tavern and restaurant as you walk the cobblestone streets of the old town, like Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

While we were in Trinidad, staying in an old mansion, my friends took a cab every day to Playa Ancon, one of the beautiful Caribbean beaches only a few miles out of town. I didn’t go, because I just wanted to gorge on music, music and more music all day long. It didn’t quench my thirst. I still need more.

We spent three days in Trinidad, then headed two hours west to the Bay of Pigs and a town just outside of Playa Larga. This is famous for the attempted invasion of Cuba by a U.S.-supported counterrevolutionary force, and I fully intended to go to the local museum to be steeped in anti-American rhetoric.

Unfortunately, the beaches were just too blue, the water too clear and warm, and it called to us to come, swim and snorkel. We didn’t even try to resist.
I have one request: Please don’t take a package tour of Cuba.

The Cuban people are so warm and funny and inviting. And if you take a package tour, you’ll never meet any of them. That would really be a shame.

But, you are asking, what about the new travel restrictions that the U.S. president just imposed?
I was dismayed to hear President Donald Trump’s June 16 speech in Florida, which re-imposed travel restrictions on U.S. visitors to Cuba that had only recently lifted, though his proposed changes were alarming. Note that the changes he pledged to make must still be drafted into policy by the U.S. Treasury Department, and no date has been set for them to take effect. They also won’t ban U.S. airline or cruise travel to the island, nor place new restrictions on how tourists buy plane tickets.

Also, of the 12 official “reasons” that Americans are legally allowed to travel on their own to Cuba, only one is to be rescinded, with 11 remaining. Trump pledged that the “people-to-people exchange” reason for visiting, which had been expanded from tour groups only to individual travel, would be rolled back to apply only to package tours.

We did not enter Cuba under this provision, but under a different official “reason,” which approves travel for “support for the Cuban people.” I do support the Cuban people, and this official “reason” for visiting won’t be affected by the changes, according to the U.S. Treasury briefing paper I read this week. Still, for my next trip (as all of them), I will buy “cancel for any reason” insurance from InsureMyTrip.com, and then I can get most of my money back that I paid in advance if there’s a glitch.

The president did indicate that he wants to ban Americans from spending their money in ways that enrich the Cuban military, which operates the government-run tourist hotels. I don’t recommend you stay at those hotels, anyway, because I love the guesthouses.

What you should do instead is stay in a Cuban guesthouse, and this is the time to go. Under Raul Castro, the communist regime is loosening its grip on private enterprise, allowing small businesses like restaurants, tour companies, vintage taxis and such to operate. This means more selection in places to stay, eat, shop and recreate.

But go now, before the American trade embargo is inevitably ended, and this unique time in Cuban history, which is like stepping back in time, is ended. Before you find a Starbucks on every corner, with a McDonalds across the street. Until then, you’ll find beautiful Havana, where the old town is restored but the rest of the city is crumbling, like a genteel lady whose beauty has faded.

Live like a native

Cuban guesthouses are called casas particulares, and they are licensed by the government. In order for proprietors to get a license, each room for rent must have an air conditioner and a private bathroom. It’s Cuba, so things are always in flux, but that was the rule at this writing. We loved ours.

In communist Cuba, everyone ostensibly works for the government for minuscule wages. People have universal free health care. Excellent education, also free. And ration books that provide them food staples at heavily discounted prices. But anyone who wants more than a basic standard of living needs to find a second job in tourism, which drives Cuba’s economy these days.

This means you have odd experiences, like we did of staying in a guesthouse run by the presiding judge of Old Havana. She only earns $25 a month as a judge, and her lawyer husband earns the same. We paid them $35 per night for each room we rented in their charming apartment in central Havana, with the beautiful balcony overlooking the street. And an additional $5 each morning for a breakfast that included luscious fresh fruit, eggs and coffee.

Our casa particular in the historic town of Trinidad was a mansion that once served as the Spanish consulate. We took the entire second floor, all four bedrooms, with antiques and open-air patios. It’s owned by a former veterinarian and his wife. We paid $35 per night, per room and felt like we were sleeping in a museum. After inquiring what they needed via email, we brought them medicine they couldn’t get in Cuba. In return, our hosts couldn’t do enough for us. The owner, Rogelio, even drove my son to the beach in his motorcycle sidecar, just for fun.

One of our cab drivers used to be an engineer, but he makes more money driving tourists around in his classic 1957 Chevrolet. At our casa particular in Caleton, Playa Larga, at the Bay of Pigs, the manager on-site was Jorge, a chemist from Havana who takes turns caring for the guesthouse on the beach with the rest of his family.

In the evenings, he fixed us cocktails and chatted, or read his Kindle. They brought in dancer friends from Havana to put on a private dance show for us, and we all partied until we dropped.

I found all these guesthouses on Tripadvisor.com, and then looked up their information on other websites, too. I also found a small tour company called Nosotros Cubaneamos, run by a woman named Geikis. She’s a dermatologist who moonlights running a tour business. She hooked us up with English-speaking tour guides, who took us around the city and were tons of fun, for $40-$60 per day total. Not per person. I’d use them again in a heartbeat.

Here’s the thing: Yes, Cuba has gorgeous beaches, architecture and such. But its people are its gemstones. There’s not much English spoken, so if you don’t speak any Spanish, you need to be flexible and have a sense of humor.

I can only tell you that every time we left a guesthouse, or said goodbye to one of our guides, we felt like we were leaving our new best friends. And you’re not going to get that if you go on a package tour.

Relax, you’re in Cuba

Here’s another tip: To enjoy Cuba, you need to relax and do what the locals do: Shrug a lot and say with a sigh, “It’s Cuba.”

Taxi driver doesn’t show up to pick you up at the Havana airport, even though you arranged it in advance? P’shaw, it’s Cuba. Just hire another cab to get you into town.

Your tour guide can’t come because her moving van never showed up? She’ll send someone else. Shake it off. It’s Cuba.

You’ve asked the landlady at your guesthouse for fresh towels for two days and they never appear? Shrug. Until you find she’s stacked 12 of them inside an antique cabinet that you’d never even considered opening. Si. It’s Cuba.

You walk for an hour in sweltering afternoon heat to get to the only place to change money in town, only to find it closed early for no apparent reason.

The government of Cuba operates money exchanges called CADECAs, which are the only places you can change your foreign currency for tourist-convertible Cuban pesos. These are called CUCs, pronounced “kooks,” which is appropriate, because their use is so kooky they are being slowly phased out. Meanwhile, we can’t use any money at all except CUCs to buy anything. And my supply is getting perilously low.

A sweet little old lady comes out of her house next door. “They are closed,” she says politely in Spanish, with a smile. “They are open until 6.”

“It’s only 3:30,” I point out to her, in my bad tourist Spanish. She repeats that they close at 6. I repeat that it’s only 3:30.

Ah, well, she just shrugs. After all, it’s Cuba. Then, she perks up. There’s another exchange place around the corner that we can use, that never appeared in any guidebook or on a tourist map. We head over there. It’s open and the line is only four people deep, which in Cuba is something of a miracle. Probably because it seems to be a secret.

I get to the front of the counter. I want to exchange $1,000 for Cuban convertible pesos to last for the rest of our trip.
“We only have 5-CUC notes available,” the cashier tells me, behind bulletproof glass, with an apologetic shrug. After commission, that would mean I’d be carrying around 181 bills in my money belt.

“How can you only have fives?” I ask her in Spanish, feeling frustrated. This is the only CADECA open today in Trinidad, even though it’s one of the most important tourist destinations on the island. I have to get Cuban pesos now, because we’re heading to a little town in the Bay of Pigs that definitely won’t have any place to change money.

“It’s Cuba,” she says, and shrugs. So I collect 181 notes and shove them into my money belt, which no longer zips all the way and makes me look pregnant. At least we won’t starve to death. Luckily, I’m later able to change the small bills for people who were only able to get large bills when they changed their money.

Drink your daily rum

The good news is, rum is cheap. I drink a lot of it. Mojitos. Pina coladas. You name it. We drank it. Yes, I gained weight. I’m not sorry.

One oddity of Cuba is that there’s very little Internet access. Most Cubans don’t have it in their homes. You must go to a public park and buy an Internet card to get connected to basic Wi-Fi. You can tell these parks, because everyone’s sitting around staring at their phones, just like at home. I never bothered. It was nice to be unplugged. Even though I found out later our friends were worried about our radio silence.

At first, my two teenagers eagerly headed out for the park each night. Then, gradually, they lost interest. We had actual conversations that weren’t interrupted by cat videos.

We ate lobster, fresh fish and shrimp everywhere. We swam in crystal blue waters. We walked. We talked. We danced. We met wonderful people. So, yes, I have a hangover. And I don’t ever want it to end.

IF YOU GO

Language: Cubans are taught English in school but seldom have a chance to practice, so very little is spoken outside of Old Havana. The Cuban dialect is spoken very fast and is hard to catch, even if you speak Spanish.
Money: Due to the U.S. trade embargo, Americans could not use any U.S. credit or debit cards in Cuba. That means, get yourself a good money belt and bring cash.

When you arrive, you’ll have to go to an official money exchange, called a CADECA, and buy Cuban pesos. They are outside the Havana airport. You must buy Cuban convertible pesos, known as CUCs (pronounced “kooks”).

They are tied to the U.S. dollar, so worth $1 each. However, here’s the catch: You must pay a 10 percent penalty for using American dollars, plus the exchange commission. When we went, we paid $100 and got back $87 in return.

We were frugal but not penny pinching and spent around $140 per person, per day. Cuba is not as cheap as, say, Mexico, but it’s cheaper than Europe. You can also use the local money that Cubans use, called moneda nacional, to save money on some purchases. But you must first change your dollars into CUCs, then into moneda nacional. Don’t change money on the street. It’s illegal.

Information: When you buy a plane ticket to Cuba, you are still required to list a reason for going. Just put down, “Support for the Cuban people.” No one ever asked us a word about this before or after. You’ll have to buy a tourist visa at the airport before you leave. This costs $50 and can be purchased on the spot. You can use a credit card to buy it.

No one asked us a single question when we returned to the U.S. except how much liquor we were bringing back. The relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is changing rapidly, and, with the death of Fidel Castro, so is the Cuban economy.

Get the most up-to-date guidebook you can, and prepare to be flexible. We got a lot of misinformation from other travelers, such as, “You can just use dollars. They want dollars.” No, they don’t.

The best source of info is the Cuban people. You won’t be able to get online to look things up, so bring a map and tourist information with you. Note that inside Cuba, mobile phones can only call other mobile phones, and land lines can only call land lines.

Safety: Cuba is a very safe country with little violent crime. It’s safe to walk around anywhere. However, as in any poor country, there’s a lot of petty theft. Watch your belongings and keep money in a safe in your room. Watch your stuff at the beach, too.

But don’t get paranoid. I left my phone in a taxi and got it back the same day. If you see street beggars in Old Havana, be aware that they are professionals. All Cubans have enough food and medical care. They do not need milk for their babies. People who come up to you in the street are likely trying to scam you or get you into a club or restaurant where they will get a commission. Decline politely.

Don’t buy cigars on the street. They’re probably made of banana leaves, not tobacco.

Getting around: It’s just as cheap to hire a car and driver as to rent a car yourself. Reserve online before you go. Your guesthouse owner can find you a driver to take you anywhere you like. Yellow taxis are government-owned and -licensed, and more expensive.

There are two bus companies that will take you on long-haul trips at reasonable cost. Locally, there are also collective taxis that will haul you around cheaply. Get a guidebook to learn more.

Private guides: You can pay a fortune for a private guide, but why should you, when there’s Nosotros Cubaneamos? Affordable private tour guides are around $60 per day, or more if you want a tour in a vintage car. Highly recommended! Run by Geikis, a dermatologist who moonlights running a tour agency. Contact her at Facebook.com/NosotrosCubaneamos/

Where to stay

Guesthouses: You can save a lot of money by staying in a casa particular, or guesthouse, rather than a hotel, and get to know Cuban people, too. They generally cost $25-$45 per room per night and sleep two to four people. Breakfast costs $5. They are required to have air conditioning and a private bath.

You can just show up and see what’s out there, though the most popular casas are booked well in advance. Look for casas at Cuba-Junky.com or on Tripadvisor.com.

Havana: Casa Colonia Abogados Leonardo y Angela. Great location in Habana Centro (Central Havana) out of the tourist bubble, yet within walking distance of Old Havana. Friendly hosts, a generous balcony overlooking the street. They speak some English and have limited email. $35 per room per night. Address: Neptuno #619, first floor (in U.S. would be considered second floor) between Gervasio y Escobar streets, La Habana, Cuba. casacolonialabogados.com

Trinidad: Casa Rogelio Inchauspi Bastida. Run by Rogelio, a retired veterinarian, and his charming wife, Barbara. He speaks a bit of English, she only speaks Spanish. Beautiful historic mansion filled with antiques and with a rooftop terrace. They are friendly and kind. Steep stairs make it impractical for limited mobility or families with small children. Great location right in the historic district, steps from everything you want to do. The best fresh mangos I’ve ever tasted for breakfast. $35-$45 per room per night. Find him on Facebook or Cuba-Junky.com. Address: Simon Bolivar No. 312. Trinidad. Phone: 53 41 994107.

Playa Larga, Bay of Pigs: In the hamlet of Caleton, the Hostal El Legendario. Right on the beach, this cute, homey guesthouse is run by friendly folks who will do anything for you. They even ran to the store to buy cigars for us, as gifts, when we wondered what the Cubans smoked themselves, compared with pricey tourist versions. They speak a little English but smile a lot.

Phenomenal fruit for breakfast, and cocktails on their cozy, homey beachfront patio. They play great Cuban music on the stereo all day too, unlike the guesthouse down the beach that plays annoying American pop. Try to get the front room with the ocean view; the other two rooms are kind of small and dark (but worth it for the location.)

The owners are educated and interesting. The tours they offered weren’t the best, though. And they could upgrade their beach chairs. The beach here is pleasant but not outstanding – grab a cab to one of the better snorkeling spots. El-legendario.com. Address: Hostal El Legendario Caletón, Playa Larga, Ciénaga de Zapata, Matanzas.

Marla Jo Fisher, Orange County Register

June 22, 2017

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