By Bill Husted
Getting to Cuba for a visit has never been easier, but that is not to say it’s not confusing. Everything in Cuba has a degree of confusion to it, a wink, a white lie, a shared understanding that is never understood.
You can count on the fact that a cultural institution in your city (read: every city of a certain size) sponsors regular trips to Cuba within the Obama sponsored “person-to-person” program. In Denver, the Film Society sponsored a trip last year, a week long sojourn to Havana with accommodations at the fabulous Hotel Nacional. People who took the trip told me it was a little too organized for their tastes. It cost more than $3,300-plus for a flight to Havana and the hotel for 6 nights, sightseeing and various meals. And that is a relative bargain. Globus, a travel agency based in Denver, offers a nine-day Cuba trip for about $3,000, compared to a 7-day tour of Italy for $2,000. The University of Denver offers a 7-day Cuba trip for $4,399. All these prices do not include airfare to Miami and depend on double occupancy. You can see that Cuba is quite expensive, but through DU you do stay at the Parque Central, one of the grand hotels smack dab in the center of Old Havana.
Cuba is famously poor, but visiting there can be numbingly expensive. I have visited the island twice and my last trip included airfare from Miami and three nights in a second-rate hotel, Quinta Avenida Habana, 20 minutes from Old Havana which is has that new but rundown vibe. Terribly inconvenient, and I was promised a 5-star hotel in town. This was not it. There is no place to walk from the hotel; the cab ride to Old Havana is at least $15, which can add up if you head to the city once or twice every day. All this for $2,000 plus a $200 fee to a Miami church for a Visa. With airfare Miami-Havana round trip comes in at about $500 (this is about a 30-minute flight!) and the hotel lists at about $70-a-night. It appears that my California-based travel agent made a tidy profit of about $1,300 per person for booking this trip. Agents who arrange Cuba excursions simply will not tell you what things cost, just the total cost.
The Denver-based bus tours operated by Globus have just started Cuba trips to Havana for nine days (about $3,000 plus flights to Miami) and in the countryside (also about $3,000 plus airfare.) In Havana you are housed at the barely OK Melia Cohiba Hotel (some rough TripAdvisor reviews, it sits across from the Quinta Avenida Havana – in what seems like the sucker-section for clueless visitors). Call Go Next at 800-842-9023, try globusjourneys.com.
There are two currencies in Cuba. The Cuban peso (the CUP), used by the locals, and the peso convertible, known as the CUC, which is worth $1. American credit cards are not accepted, but even European and Canadian cards are rarely used. Bring cash into Cuba – and bring plenty. I was advised by one regular traveler to bring $1,000-a-day to keep fed and clean. That’s a little overstated, but eating, drinking, taxis, it all adds up quickly. And you’ll want to buy some art – always interesting.
Internet is available at most hotels, but it is expensive and undependable. Cell phones do not work. See? Cuba is like going back in time except you are paying today’s prices.
Your hotel will arrange a tour for you – or it might be included in your package. Other than the unique people-to-people greet and meets, there are basic tourist stops.
Stay in the best hotel you can find. Suggestions include Hotel Nacional (www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com), Parque Central (www.hotelparquecentral.com), Saratoga (www.hotel-saratoga.com).
The first time I went to Cuba, about eight years ago, I was not with a group, just some friends. A Boulder Hemingwayesque character named Coba Bob arranged the first trip which, though expensive, was wonderful. If you can figure out how to do this, it is a vastly superior way to see Cuba. Just start asking people, telling them you want to go to Cuba. An avenue will present itself. Even of you go illegally through Cancun, not to worry. Obama has bigger things on his plate than tourists in Cuba. We had big comfortable rooms at the Nacional, a one-day tour in a Mercedes van that hit all the major sites, including the Hemingway House, lunch at the bay where “The Old Man and the Sea” was filmed, the Museum of the Revolution (the former Presidential Palace, of course), Parque John Lennon (with a statue of the late Beatle seated in a bench) and the iconic Hemingway bars (Floradita, La Bodegita del Medio). The Nacional is dripping in charm and history. A drink on the patio at the bar or in an oversized wicker chair, smoking a cigar from the hotel’s extensive cigar store, listening to a combo play some Cuban music. Well, life doesn’t get much better.
We rented a car, about $75-a-day for some functional Russian number, and the three of us took a road trip that took us to the Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, a night in Trinidad. The next day we drove north across the country to Remedios, a small village with one hotel and intermittent electricity. We picked up hitchhikers, had the 8-lane highway mostly to ourselves, and truly got to see some of the local life of Cubans. In Remedios, we ate in the house of a doctor and his family, inexpensive and delicious and instructive. Doctors in Cuba need to take in diners to make ends meet. We loved Havana, but this two-day excursion really made the trip.
We did not go to Veradero, a beach town that once was Cuba’s answer to the Hamptons. I wish we had. You don’t meet many Cubans, but it is a developed beach town with modern hotels and beachfront restaurants. In the person-to-person tours, you will not get near Veradero as there is little Cuban culture to share. But people always find it intriguing.
You don’t go to Cuba for the food. Chicken, pork, beef, fish, rice and beans. And that’s about it. The chickens are skinny and the fish are sparse. Seems every time a Cuban gets into a fishing boat he takes it to Miami. Many fish near the shore from inner tubes. Cubans are basically not allowed on boats.
Most restaurants are run by the government and have mediocre, soulless food. Havana has many paladars that are privately run and many are excellent, the most famous of which is La Guarida (many pictures emerged of Jay Z and Beyone leaving the charming restaurant.) It is settled into the second floor of a decrepit residence, walking up the stairs made a friend comment, “This is the coolest place I have ever been in my life.” Make reservations there before your trip at www.laguardia.com.
Cigar stores are everywhere – but do not buy them from street vendors who claim they have been smuggled out of the factories. They are quiet often forgeries. The cigars cost about the same as quality cigars cost in then US – and you will find them very strong.
Same for drinks. You have to drink Havana Club rum because we can’t get it here – and it’s good. Wine is available from Spain and South America, but may not be stored in optimum conditions.
In general, keep things simple in Cuba – your appetite, your clothes, your comfort expectations. Prepare to be amazed. Do not prepare for the lap of luxury.
A note on clothes: the average monthly wage in Cuba hovers around $20, and with that comes a ration booklet that might feed a family of four for two weeks, tops. The people can use anything, though they are a proud people. Bring toiletries, baseballs (Cubans love baseball but the balls themselves can get pretty old and ratty) and old clothes. Plan to leave almost everything behind in your room – all your clothes and anything else you may have brought with you. It will be most appreciated, although you will not see the recipients.
In a final word, I suggest that you get to Cuba as soon as possible. I would wager that the country will open up soon, under the Obama administration. Cruise lines are already gearing up for overnight gambling trips to Havana from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Key West. Once the floodgates open, the island will never be the same. Cuba is locked in 1959, the old cars, the crumbling buildings. It is a Disneyland for curious grownups, a trip back to yesterday. The island is bigger than Florida – with hundreds of miles of untouched beaches. When it opens up, American developers will invade. See it while you can. You’re going to love it.
Cuba guide books are plentiful – but not in Florida, not at the Miami or Cancun airports, not in Cuba. Insight Guides Cuba is a good choice, Moon Handbooks have separate editions for Havana and Cuba. Lonely Planet has a helpful book and the DK travel series is always beautifully illustrated. And, of course, see and listen to “The Buena Vista Social Club,” a beautiful cinematic look at the island and its musical heritage. For some fiction, try “Dirty Havana Trilogy: A Novel in Stories”by Pedro Juan Gutierrez and Natasha Wimmer.
“Boxing for Cuba: An Immigrant’s Story of Despair, Endurance, and Redemption” is the memoir of Guillermo (“Bill”) Vicente Vidal, once mayor of Denver.
The official government rules on visiting Cuba can be found at http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba.pdf
Find a way to go and go. All but the most spoiled will find it a memorable trip, a tour
to an almost forbidden land. Exotic, yet safe. Go pilgrim, go. Vamonos.
Bill Husted is a former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. He currently writes for the Denver Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at billhusted.com.
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