If you are traveling to Cuba, not so much to rest on vacation as to experience the island’s people and culture, your best bet is to choose an expedition by one of the more reputable outfits known for its guides and lecturers.
Your trip may — or may not — be the most cushy, and your beach time surely will be limited. But you will gain some understanding about today’s Cuba, a country on the Caribbean’s largest island that has been closed to most U.S. citizens for more than half a century.
Besides, you are the traveler Cuba is hoping to entice as the country rebuilds its way into a prime travel destination.
Less than one hour by plane from Miami
Tourism already is the Cuban economy’s number one industry, and that’s before the onslaught of American travelers anticipated during the months to come, many on cruise ships that now have received government permits through October 2017.
If your expedition is like mine, you will encounter some Cuban government propaganda and some extra paperwork to get into the country, then honest, optimistic feelings from the people who live there. The dozens of folks I talked with all hope that Americans will arrive with some interest in their lives, some money to spend, and no plans to take over their country.
My Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic tour to Cuba — three nights in Havana at the venerable, impressive but outdated Nacional Hotel and seven nights cruising on the cozy 150-foot Panorama II — was described in brochures and communications as a people-to-people tour, as spelled out in a contract with the Cuban government.
That’s what we did. We met, listened to and/or watched talented Cubans speak, entertain and show off their homes, businesses and artistic creations. Local experts, learned lecturers, and outstanding photographers led us to fascinating people, artists and artwork, musicians, and glimpses of life only an hour’s plane ride south of Miami.
We met Cubans from all walks of life.
Conversation in a bodega
In Havana we visited a streetside bodega, a shop where residents come to buy subsidized food with a one-month ration book. The food is very cheap, but the one month rations only feed a family for about 10 days, said our guide, Rafael.
Money to buy food for the rest of the month? That’s what people are hustling to make, he said. We met a man who gets in line each day to buy internet cards that provide codes to connect your phone to the Internet in public parks; he sells a card for an extra dollar (in Cuban currency) to tourists and other people who are willing to pay for not standing in line.
Gaming the system is a constant battle, said one man. For instance, many people keep their stoves burning natural gas 24 hours a day, because a day’s gas, which is among the heavily government-subsidized basics, is cheaper than a box of matches.
“Where you from,” asked a man waiting in line at the bodega with his ration coupons. He turned out to be a baseball fan who was well aware of the recent World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the victorious Chicago Cubs.
“Cleveland, Ohio,” I said.
“You still haven’t won a championship since 1948,” he said with a smile. We both were thinking, “That was more than 10 years before the Cuban Revolution.”
A gray market exists all over the country, said a local guide, as people simply cannot exist on their small salaries; they get by while using their wits to obtain what they need to help feed and house their families. A huge amount of gasoline just disappears from storage containers, he said, as do construction materials. If you are building something, such as a room on your house, a government official will stop to insist on proof of where the materials came from and proof that you paid for them.
“It is a struggle,” he said. “When we leave home and are asked where we are going, we say that we are fighting for life in this new entrepreneurial world.”
Music and a gastro-revolution
One career that is booming in Havana, and starting to sprout elsewhere in the country, is the restaurant business. Guided by our tour experts, we ate well, and viewed even better at seaside rooftop restaurants and in historic homes where Cubans are expanding their businesses and presentations for an anticipated future rise in visitors.
Havana, said guidebook author and expedition lecturer Christopher P. Baker, is in the midst of a gastro-revolution thanks to the creativity of cuentapropistas (private entrepreneurs). Baker was a fount of information, having written and photographed six books about Cuba, including the best-selling Moon Cuba and National Geographic Traveler Cuba guidebooks, plus Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba and the coffee-table book Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles.
I found that Cuban restaurant food was tasty, though without much in the way of fresh vegetables, and always served with gusto and smiles. In a private rooftop performance, Grammy award winning Septeto Nacional, founded in 1927 and now in its fourth generation, played Cuban music with special guest singers that included Pedro Godinez, 90.
We rode in 1950s American cars used as taxis, met with young journalists (at OnCubaMagazine.com, which is published in the United States) and watched the Habana Compás troupe, which drummed and danced to blends of the rhythms of Cuba.
Hemingway’s home and fishing boat
Between 1939 and 1960, author Ernest Hemingway lived much of his life in a home about an hour’s drive from the center of Havana. The estate, called Finca Vigia, and his fishing boat Pilar have been well preserved. Sightseers may look through large windows and doorways to see his office and living areas.
Next: Cruising to Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and Trinidad
(Photos by David G. Molyneaux, TheTravelMavens.com
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published in U.S. newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, and on Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com