Living

Why you should get to Cuba now

Parque Vidal is the town square of Santa Clara, the capital of the Cuban province of Villa Clara. It was the site of the last battle of the Cuban Revolution in 1958.
Parque Vidal is the town square of Santa Clara, the capital of the Cuban province of Villa Clara. It was the site of the last battle of the Cuban Revolution in 1958. Minneapolis Star Tribune

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.

KNOW THE NEW RULES

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 McDonald’s 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.

I found all these guesthouses on Tripadvisor.com, and then looked up their information on other websites, too.

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.

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”).

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.

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: 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.

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