Americans in Cuba

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For much of this academic year, Christina and I were looking to plan a trip to celebrate the end of the school year. As Christina goes to school in Florida, we wanted to do something with easy access from Florida. Our first thought; Cuba. A beautiful Caribbean island with a vast amount of rich culture and history. We had no idea traveling to Cuba is not the same as any other vacation for an American. It took quite a but of planning, but ended turning into an incredible experience.

Traveling to Cuba as a tourist from the US is prohibited. To travel to Cuba as an American, one must travel under a specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). OFAC is a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. For Christina and I, the obvious choice was to travel under the “support for the Cuban people” license. This license provides that US travelers will create a full time schedule that will “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities; and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.” This means staying at locals homes known as “casa particulars”, eating at private restaurants, and hiring local guides to show you around. The language is quite vague, and difficult to interpret. Even with this information, Christina and I found it quite hard to try and develop a full time schedule for Cuba. In comparison to other countries, there is little information online about travel to Cuba. Internet is new there, and so is tourism. According to our Lonely Planet Cuba book, tourism opened in Cuba in 1993. President Obama opened travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens that did not have Cuban family members in 2016. Daily commercial flights and cruise ships visited from the U.S. began shortly after. And with the influx of travelers to Cuba with a new pattern of expanding the private sector, the Cuban government began to allow the use of Airbnb.

Christina and I did our best to start to plan an itinerary that followed the guidelines, but we realized we needed help. After doing some research online, it seemed that using Viahero was our best option. After filling our the preliminary surveys, we were matched with a Spanish teacher from Havana named Saily to create our itinerary. She ended up making an incredible itinerary that reflected our interests and followed the U.S. Treasury guidelines. Using Saily’s guidance we decided on two nights in old Havana, followed by two nights in Viñales, and then returning to Havana for two nights. Thanks Saily!! 6 nights, 7 days seemed perfect for our trip with the current guidelines.

Another odd hurdle to jump through for Cuba is that you can only get the Cuban currency in Cuba, and there is a very high tax for converting U.S. dollars to Cuban convertible pesos. The most economical way was for us to get Euros in the states, and convert them to Cuban convertible pesos in Cuba. Cuba has two main currencies, the CUP (Cuban Peso), and CUC (Cuban convertible peso). 1 CUC is worth 1 USD, while 1 CUC is worth 25 CUPs. The convertible peso is used by tourists and those who work in the tourism industry. We only used CUC for the duration of our trip.

On April 17, the Trump administration announced that travel to Cuba would be banned for non family visits. With just a few weeks before we were ready to fly to Havana, it seemed our trip was going to be canceled. But, as bureaucracy goes, there was and is currently no official directive from the Department of Treasury on new travel restrictions. And so, we decided to go on with our trip!

Edit June 5th, the Trump administration banned travel from cruise ships and groups traveling under a “people-to people” license. Support for the Cuban people is still an acceptable category.

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Boarding pass and Cuban visa enclosed!

On the morning of May 7th, we left Tampa at 7am before flying through Fort Lauderdale en route to Havana. We were quite worried about the fact that you purchase your visas at the gate, which I imagine is rather unique. It ended up being quick and easy. At the Southwest gate in Fort Lauderdale, a representative from Cuba travel services sold us our visas to Cuba for $75. After a hour of an unknown delay, we were on the tarmac for our one hour flight to Havana.

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Landing in Havana. No jet bridges here.

A quick flight later and we were deep in the Caribbean. We exited the plane via some stairs and the humid air hit me like a brick. Mind you I was skiing the week before in Colorado!

Customs was easy, but waiting for our luggage was another story. Christina’s bag came within 15 minutes. We then waited more than a hour and half for my bag. Quite nerve racking, we were worried by bag was not going to make it. It didn’t look like they had many vehicles to move the bags from the plane, and I also suspect they did a through inspection of the contents in my bag.

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First glance of Cuba. Jose Marti International Airport. The “P” on the license plate means private vehicle. Other letters are used for registered military, government, foreign company, diplomatic, or rental cars.

 

Fortunately for us, we had a taxi waiting for us at the airport. We felt horrible that the driver had waited so long for us. 45 minute drive and we were in the heart of Old Havana.

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First glance at the window outside of our first Air bnb in Old Havana. The building straight ahead is the Spanish embassy.

Our first Air bnb was on the 6th floor of an apartment in Old Havana. It was hosted by a young artist named Ian and his wonderful grandparents. By far some of the nicest people we met in Cuba.

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Our wonderful hosts the first two nights!

 

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Just outside.
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Another view from our window.

 

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Old 50’s chevys with new engines. All of the vehicles are in tremendous shape, the Cubans pride themselves in being handy. Most the cars were either American cars from the 50s, Russian cars from the 70s, newer Peugeots, or Audis and Mercedes from diplomats and foreigners.
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Museo de la revolucion just outside from our air bnb.

 

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A tank commanded by Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Our apartment was the building on the right. Eastern bloc inspired apartments by old Spanish colonial buildings. Around the corner the Granma yacht is guarded 24/7. This was the boat the Castro took from Mexico with other supports of the revolution in 1956.

 

Our first night in Old Havana was our salsa lesson, mojito lesson, and roof top dinner about a 10 min pedicab ride from our Airbnb. If you ask me nicely maybe I’ll show you the video of me attempting salsa, but I’m sure Christina will be much easier to convince.

We got a little lost getting over there, but we were helped by a local on the street. In very good english he told us how to get to our destination and then asked where we were from etc. He said he was disappointed in Trump’s policies and view towards Cuba was but very happy to have us visiting Cuba. That was a good way to start our trip.

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Night 1.

The next few hours were filled with salsa dancing, mojito instruction, and a delicious meal of chicken and fish on the rooftop.

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Mojito lesson

 

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Our typical breakfast. Our Airbnb’s served us breakfast at an extra 5 CUC per person.

 

The next morning we had a private walking tour throughout Old Havana. Our tour guide was Yasmin, a professor and tour guide who was born in Camaguey, in the east side of the country. Yasmin spent the entire day with us, showing us historical attractions and telling us all about the culture and history of her country.

Here are some photos from our 3 hour long walk through old Havana.

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Very talented artists in Havana.

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Great Theatre of Havana next to the capitol.

 

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Taxi drivers waiting for tourists.

 

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Parque central in front of a statue dedicated to Jose Marti, a martyr for Cuban independence.

 

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Dogs of Cuba?

 

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The pink house on the right was one of Hemingway’s favorite places to grab a drink.

 

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Plaza de la cathedral

 

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Inside Havana’s main cathedral.

 

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Lunch with our tour guide Yasmin at Jibaro restaurant in Old Havana.

After lunch we took a taxi to visit an outdoor art project known as Fusterlandia. Fusterlandia is the home of Cuban artists Jose Fuster. He is known for his use of tile mosaics. For the last two decades or so he has transformed his house and his neighborhood into an outdoor art exhibit. When we visited, Jose was sitting outside playing chess with a friend.

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Fusterlandia was about a half hour outside Havana, so we got to drive through several different neighborhoods. The large, bleak soviet-inspired apartments got my eye as well as the randomly placed tributes to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Without many private businesses in Cuba, there are essentially no advertisements. The bill boards are filled with tributes to the revolution.

After Fusterlandia, we drove over to another art project known as Callejon de Hamel. Callejon de Hamel is a community art project in an alley with Cuban-Afro influence. Here, artists in the neighborhood use recycled items to decorate the alley. There is a large emphasis on symbols of Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion that was mainly developed in Cuba.

 

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Repurposed bathtubs in Callejon de Hamel.

 

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A school just by the alley.

 

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Our taxi for the day.

Quite a long day, but it was just spectacular. So much culture and history to explore!

That night we enjoyed one of our best meals of the trip at Habana 61 , a restaurant within walking distance of our Air bnb. Although the streets were not very well lit, Christina and I felt incredibly safe walking along the streets at night. No one bothered us, and it was quiet and peaceful in old Havana.

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Habana 61. Seafood pasta and steak.

 

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The next day was mainly planned for our bus ride to Vinales, but we had a few hours to kill in the morning. Our first stop was the San Jose market for souvenirs.

 

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Heading past the port for the daily cruise ships. As of June 5th, American cruise companies are no longer allowed to dock in Cuba.

 

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And we walked around a bit more. Visiting the Havana Club store, home of Cuba’s most famous rum.

 

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Meeting the locals! This man told us his dislike of Trump and that the dog Christina is carrying is actually named Obama!

 

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More beautiful architecture.

 

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Checking out the views of the Malecon, Havana’s famous boardwalk/ highway on the ocean.

 

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Yes, we got hats.
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Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro.

 

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Checking out Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta next to the malecon.

 

After our nice walk in the morning, we headed to the bus station to embark on the next adventure of our trip. We were headed to Cuba’s countryside known as Viñales, the center of tobacco and coffee in the country. The bus station was chaotic as expected, but our bus company Viazul, seemed rather organized. The clerk that checked us in noticed  we were American and jokingly went “oh Americans??, how did you escape??, does Trump know you are here??” The Cubans sure have a sense of humor!

Our 4 hour bus ride was mainly on a large highway in the center of the country. Since it is very expensive to buy a vehicle, it is common for locals to hang out by underpasses to try and get picked up by a bus or private car driving in that direction. It was a bizarre sight to see 15 people at each underpass waiting to hitch hike down the highway a bit more.

Again on this drive we saw more tributes to the revolution. Quotes such as “Castro is always with us” and a quote by Guevara that said “my dreams have no limits.” Another one was something like “61 years since the agrarian reforms, thanks Castro!”

Our one restroom and snack break was at a tourist information center at the entrance of the Pinar del rio province. We were very impressed with the tourist information they had for us and other travelers. An attendant handed out free maps of the province, and answered several questions about activities to do in the area.

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A map of the Pinar del rio region and more specifically Vinales in the bottom right. The red area are the large cliff walls known as mogotes.

A hour later, and we were in the small town of Viñales. We were dropped off in the town square, and our Air bnb was just around the corner. This was definitely a tourist town, but it wasn’t that busy in May. Many locals were renting out rooms for foreigners, it would not have been hard to find a room the night of arriving in Viñales.

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The town’s square

 

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With our host, Ana.

 

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The town itself was no more than 5 or 6 streets.

The next morning we did a horseback tour to the tobacco and coffee fields just outside of the time. Our host was Miguel, a relative of our host. He brought us around on horseback for several hours and we made several stops while a few other farmers explained their methods of growing and creating cigars, coffee, and rum in the region.

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Seeing where the tobacco is dried.

 

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With our tour guide, Miguel.

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We were stunned by the beauty of the fields and the cliff sides. There has been some climbing areas developed nearby in the last few years, but it sure looks like there is plenty more space for development. I would love to come back and climb!

One fact we learned from the tobacco production was that the farmers here are required to sell 90% of their yearly crops to the government for cigar production. The other 10% they are allowed to keep for themselves or sell to tourists. This was one of the few places in the country you can buy cigars directly from the farmers.

That evening we had our host Ana make us a great meal and we took a few minutes to visit the lookout just outside of town.

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Spectacular!
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Hotel horizontes los jazmines at a great viewpoint.  Looked to be lots of European guests at the hotel.

The following morning we rented bikes and rode about a half hour to visit la mural de la prehistoria, a large mural showing what life was like during the age of dinosaurs. It was started in the 60s by Leovigildo González Morillo and took more than 15 people four years to complete!
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Christina waiting around for me as usual

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Colorful homes on our ride

 

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Sadly, this was our last adventure in Vinales. I would love to come back to climb someday.

Back on the bus to Havana…

For our last two nights we stayed in Centro Havana. This area was much more of a residential area than old Havana. Many of the buildings were quite run down.

Our host was a local named Gustavo who was married with a young boy. This air bnb was more of a bed and breakfast as there were 3 other rooms available for rent.

That night we walked to our dinner reservation and afterwards we went to hear some music at a restaurant on the malecon.

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At night many of the residents are in the street, hanging out and listening to music. All though this neighborhood was poorly lit, we felt very safe walking at night.

 

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One of the areas where you can access wifi. Wifi is only available at public parks and some upscale hotels. To access the internet you must buy a wifi card at a corner store. 1 hour is $1-2. The wifi cards are scratch off with a unique coupon code. There is definitely some internet censorship but nothing we were able to notice.

 

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Sunset of the malecon. The national hotel is on the left.

Our last full day in Havana was spectacular. We had a private taxi scheduled to take us to a cooking lesson, and then to the beach afterwards.

Our cooking lesson was at the Ajiaco cafe, about a 15 minute drive from downtown Havana in the fishing town of Cojimar. Cojimar was the inspiration  for Hemmingway’s  “Old man and the Sea.”

The first part of our cooking lesson was spent taking a tour of the garden just down the street. Everything in the garden is used in the restaurant.

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The best part of the garden was their use of plastic bottles! The majority of items used to help with the garden were recycled. The garden was run by two brothers as a part time job, with occasional help from local high school programs. 

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After touring the garden and learning about different crops in Cuba, we returned to the restaurant and began to cook! Christina worked on ropa vieja, and I helped cook langosta. Ropa vieja is a typical Cuban dish, shredded  beef in a stir fry with a tomato based sauce. Langosta is a lobster dish.

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Another mojito lesson! This time with honey instead of sugar.
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Langosta

After a very filling meal (which we helped with), we headed to the beach! We went to playas del este, a group of beaches just a half hour to the east of Havana. After paying $6 for two beach chairs and an umbrella, we got to enjoy the crystal clear Caribbean water! We even had bar service on the beach. There were several other tourists sitting nearby, including the first American we had met in several days

The beach was spectacular. It was relatively clean, though Christina and spent a few minutes picking up trash. The sand was soft and neither of us had ever seen water so blue! I could still see my feet when the water was 10 feet deep. It truly looked like a photo shopped postcard.

What a wonderful day!

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Our last day consisted of a walk around cento Habana, and lunch at Paladar La Guarida. Oscar winning movie “Strawberry and Chocolate” was filmed in the restaurant. It was a spectacular lunch to end a spectacular trip!

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Getting back to the states was much easier than anticipated. 1 hour direct flight from Havana to Tampa and no questions for us in customs.

Our trip could not have been better! We did not know what to expect, but we were both blown away with the beauty of the country, the food, the culture, and the hospitality of the Cuban citizens. It was apparent that the citizens have suffered under the type of government in Cuba, and I hope that the country will continue to progress and open up to the world.

I have been so fortunate to travel in the last few years, but Cuba was unlike anything I have experienced.

 

A special thank you to my parents and Christina’s parents for supporting us to take a rather unconventional international trip.

 

 

 

Thank you to the Cuban people for sharing their beautiful country with this. Christina and I are so lucky to be able to experience such a different culture so geographically close to home.

I can not wait to return. I hope that the US and Cuba improve their relations in the coming years.

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And of course, a special thank you to my magnificent travel partner. Can’t wait to explore with you again, love.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Americans in Cuba

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