Many Americans know Cuban culture through Little Havana in Miami and its world famous Calle Ocho. Modern times however, have provided Americans with the unthinkable, to go behind the Caribbean iron curtain and visit the formerly isolated communist state.
By Stacy Weigant
When I was a young child growing up in Miami, Operation Peter Pan was implemented. So began an exodus from a small island nation mainly to Miami, creating a new generation of Cuban Americans. This influenced my life and my city greatly, bringing many changes, from a somewhat sleepy tourist town, which was a winter retreat for many Americans, to a multilingual, multicultural flower that blossomed. Both my city and I were introduced to the flavors, sounds and exuberance of a culture that emigrated from a place that was physically so close, yet for a multitude of reasons, so distant to most of us.
The island of Cuba has been mired in controversy for more than 50 years. It has been both vilified because of the current government and at the same time, has remained as an enticing, exotic mystery to so many people. We have listened to the stories from those who have fled over the past half-century, yet have an unbridled curiosity about those that have remained.
My first opportunity to step on Cuban soil was over 25 years ago as an employee of the original Eastern Airlines working a charter flight to Havana. I ventured as far as the passenger embarkation terminal, while waiting for the return passengers to board. As an American, I was not allowed to venture any further into this country.
Last week, I again had an opportunity to fly to Havana on a charter flight, the reincarnation of Eastern Airlines. This time I was a passenger and visitor to Cuba, traveling on a People to People Journey. With me came the stories I had heard and the preconceived ideas I had attained over the years of living in South Florida among the Cuban community. What I found in Cuba was both validating and enlightening.
Cuba is a dichotomy of ideas and experiences. Interacting with the people, you are told about free health care, free education through University, food programs for all citizens, which are the principles of communism. Yet you feel the strong desire they have to be entrepreneurs, to make more money to live a better life, the capitalistic ideology. The real story is that Cuba is complicated.
It is a place that appears frozen in time, most noticeably in its architecture and transportation, but slowly starting to thaw, as restrictions on trade and travel have eased. There are countless buildings that have been both lovingly restored, but yet so many more have still been totally neglected. The same can be said of the thousands of American cars from the 1940s and 1950s, which still make up a significant form of transportation for this island nation.
Havana is the true jewel in the Cuban crown. It offers a fantastic mix of music, arts and gastronomy along with a varied selection of hotels and casas particulares (private homes) , which are similar to Bed & Breakfasts. There are countless clubs and bars that offer a variety of music styles, from Salsa to Rumba, Reggaeton to Jazz and many more. The touristic show at the Tropicana club, is quite entertaining and reminiscent of a time past. Throughout Havana, you can discover avant-garde artists, displaying their works at a variety of galleries, both government-run and in their own independent studios. You can dine at many different Paladars, which are privately run restaurants for tourists seeking more vivid interactions with Cuban experiences and homemade Cuban food, an alternative to state-run restaurants. There you can find traditional food alongside more innovative menus.
In Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, you can take a guided walking tour exploring the restoration of buildings and streets that have existed there for almost 500 years. Later in the evening you can witness a cannon being fired at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, part of a historical park. This nightly event is a custom kept from colonial times, signaling the closure of the gates of the city wall.
Even though there is so much to see in Havana, a day trip outside of the city is a must. Traveling sometimes on empty six-lane highways built in the 1940’s and 50’s by American sugar and oil companies doing business in Cuba, many outlying areas are easily accessible. Located about 1.5 hours from Havana, the area surrounding Viñales is a one of the most lush and picturesque regions of Cuba. It is filled with stunning landscapes, waterfalls, and an orchidarium. You can visit tobacco farms and see how true Cuban cigars are rolled and then light one up at the source. To cool down you can climb the beautiful waterfall in Soroa.
For those who have time to venture further to other regions of Cuba, the colonial town of Trinidad, another UNESCO World Heritage site, is definitely worth visiting. The town was developed from the wealth of the 19th century sugar and slave trade. It is filled with the finest Spanish churches, colonial mansions, and plazas. As in Havana, it has a good selection of private restaurants, and a variety of places to listen to music, lasting into the early hours of the morning. Aside from a few smaller hotels in Trinidad, there are many nice private homes that have been converted into B&B’s. Most are filled with treasure troves of antiques, again alluding to the stepping back in time, which makes up a large part of the essence of Cuba.
Seven Days in Cuba felt much too short a time. There were still so many places to see and so many people to interact with. I departed the island enlightened, amazed, confused and quite fulfilled. The blend of Latin and Caribbean influences that I was introduced to growing up in South Florida, are innate in this island nation. The beauty and the soul that is Cuba and its people will stay with me, and most travelers for a very long time. Returning to Miami I am still a gringa (American), but even more infused with the spirit and passion of a Latina.
Some Travel Tips for Cuba:
At this time there are still certain restrictions applied to travelers originating in the United States and to United States citizens. Travel has to fall into one of 12 authorized categories. Details can be found on the following website: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/cuba.html
As of last recently, carriers such as American Airlines and JetBlue started direct service to mainland Cuba with eventually as many as 110 flights a day by the end of the year. At this time, there is no “tourism” that is legal, due to the embargo, so you must go under one of the 12 categories. Visas are required.
The major legal currency for Cuba is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). This is what you exchange your foreign currency for and make all your purchases with in Cuba. It is advisable to take plenty of cash to exchange into CUCs. You cannot use any U.S. issued credit cards, so if you run out of money while you are there, you will have to have some wired from a non-U.S. bank to a private Cuban citizen. All or most of your travel arrangements should be prepaid to avoid this situation, including your accommodations, touring and meals.
If you plan to purchase artwork or antiques to take out of the country, make sure to get an official stamp from the government and declare it. Details can be found on the following website: http://www.aduana.co.cu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=75&Itemid=200&lang=en