Cuba is Ready for You, But are You Ready for Cuba?

I’m here in Cuba with my sister Carolyn. Our Grandparents were frequent visitors in the early 1950’s, taking a sea plane over from Miami for the occasional weekend.  We still have a framed souvenir photo of them at a Havana bar called “Sloppy Joes”.   Although travel restrictions have been eased in the last few years, the U.S. still prohibits trips to Cuba that are strictly vacation-oriented. Our government has enforced a trade embargo against Cuba since 1960 but began relaxing rules for travel in 2011 when U.S. citizens were first permitted to visit as a part of ‘people to people’ exchange groups.  Until recently, that was the only way for most Americans to experience this lovely island nation.  It must be noted that Canadians and Europeans never had such restrictions and have been frequenting Cuba as individuals for many years.  However, it was only in March of 2016 that individual American travelers were allowed to go on their own private ‘people to people’ style trips.  Taking advantage of the new regulation, we arranged a trip that included Havana as well as a side trip to Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Trinidad in central Cuba where we stayed in a local home.  We were also able to get a glimpse of the fantastic Varadero Beach area.

There were many surprises along the way.  First of all, many of the locals we met were quite astonished that we came from Los Estados Unidos (USA), and were not Europeans, Cuban-Americans or Canadians.  We had hoped to get here before the place was over-run with American tourists and lost its charm.  I’m thrilled to report that we did indeed make it in time!  I also believe that others have plenty of time to get here before there’s a McDonald’s on every corner.  This does not mean that there aren’t tons of kitschy tourist shops set up all over the place; there are.  The good news, of course, is that folks are running their own little businesses and are able to break free of their reliance on the government.  Cuba is still a socialist country, now led by Fidel Castro’s brother Raul, who has instituted many reforms over the past ten years.  (Personally, I spent a lot of time in China in the mid-1980s when it was just opening up to the world and this era in Cuba feels much the same.)  No one can accurately predict when or how further changes will take place, but overall I felt a sense of optimism among those I met.

Cuba was everything we expected and more, from the beautiful old buildings in Havana to the lovingly restored classic American cars of the 1950’s that are seen all over the island.  Some of the newer private restaurants were excellent and the Cubans have not forgotten how to make a great cocktail.  There was live music everywhere and multiple opportunities to meet and chat with the locals.  Luckily, I was a Spanish major in college and have lived in Spain and Costa Rica.  My Spanish skills were very useful and allowed me to communicate with a much wider range of people throughout the trip.  It was wonderful to get outside Havana and visit some of the smaller towns as well as see the gorgeous green countryside.

If you are considering a trip to Cuba, it is extremely important to know your travel style and match your trip with it.  For those who desire maximum comfort, one of the new cruises that come to Cuba (Fathom from Miami, Celestyal from Montego Bay, etc.) may be the way to go.  You’ll have one place to unpack for the week, excellent food, all your tours are included (due to the ‘people to people’ requirement) and you’ll have access to the internet, albeit at a price.  The many ‘people to people’ group tours are another option if you enjoy that style of all-inclusive educational travel.
Should you prefer to do something more private, you will definitely need the help of a travel professional who has contacts in Cuba.  For now, and to comply with U.S. law, this is not a place where you can go online and make your own arrangements.  You need to have pre-booked hotels as well as a schedule of educational and people to people activities for the duration of your trip.   You will also have to be patient – both during the booking process and during the trip.  Internet is slow and expensive in Cuba, meaning that the instant replies we are used to are not the norm here.  There will be lots of reward for your patience, but be prepared for some of the following:

Cuba Travel Tips

• Don’t be surprised if hotels that advertise themselves as 5-star, clearly do not meet those standards. I suggest removing one to one and a half stars from each advertised property to more accurately compare them with international standards.
• It is very important to book everything as far in advance as possible. During the high season, you’ll want to plan 3 to 6 months in advance, at the very least. There are few good hotels as well as a shortage of cars and guides. Give it time; this is not yet a last-minute getaway.
• Direct flights on commercial airlines have already started from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara on Jet Blue as well as from Miami to Santa Clara or Varadero on American Airlines. We can pick you up in Santa Clara for the transfer of just over two hours to Havana. You can also fly from the USA via Canada, Mexico, Panama and other places on commercial flights to Havana. However, don’t book anything until you have your ground plans in place.
• If you fly into Havana, be prepared to wait about 2 hours without much air conditioning for your luggage to come onto the carousel. The airport is highly over-utilized and in need of infrastructure improvements. (Word on the street is that a private French company has signed a contract with the government to upgrade the airport, but that may take some years.) If you can possibly bring only a carry-aboard suitcase, that will make your arrival ever-so-much-more pleasant. The place to change money is located outside customs and often also has a long line. You can change money at the hotel at the same rate. It’s often best to wait to do it there.
• You’ll want to prearrange time in an old American convertible for a drive around the city. About three-quarters of the way through, our car broke down in the middle of the street. If, like us, you can laugh at that, you are probably ready for Cuba! Our fantastic guide called a taxi and we were able to finish the trip in air-conditioned comfort. Most “classicos” are in better condition and are also available as taxis so you can try out several models during your trip.
• If you come in the summer, be prepared for intense heat. The best months to travel are November through April, which are still summer-like but not as hot or humid. Avoid Christmas/New Years and Easter week when it will be most crowded and expensive.
• The food can be excellent if you choose your restaurants wisely. Restaurant reservations are a must in the best Havana places, and very few allow you to book online or through email. That’s where an agent with local connections comes in handy. Choose the restaurants with the help of guidebooks and/or Trip Advisor then have your agent make the bookings in advance, at least for your first couple of nights. Prices are quite reasonable by American standards.
• Aside from food, we enjoyed the authentic cocktail scene here. Every drink is made with natural ingredients – ‘Margarita mixes’ and the like are unheard of in Cuba – all drinks were delicious and garnished like it was 1955.
• If you speak some Spanish, it will come in very handy. If you don’t, take a class or study online before you come. Master the basics. Many Cubans, especially those in hotels, speak excellent English but many people do not.
• The Cuban people were universally friendly, helpful and kind. We were surprised at how much more they resemble Americans than people from the Caribbean, Mexico or South America. This is not a “mañana” society. If someone is to meet you at 9am, they will be there at 9am. That felt comforting. Also notable: the friendly “hola” greeting from so many passing by, delivered with a sincere smile.
• Be prepared for lots of walking and many stairs throughout the trip. It was two to three stories up to reach many of the better restaurants in Havana. Some of the best views involved climbing towers. The streets in Trinidad are paved with 500 year old cobblestone; sneakers are a must there! Be careful walking everywhere; there are many potholes in the streets and sidewalks; few streets are evenly paved.
• Be prepared to spend the majority of your time “off grid”. It is possible to find wi-fi here but it’s limited and slow. You can buy an hour of internet time for 2 CUCs (a little over $2 USD) but can only access wi-fi in some specific locations such as hotel lobbies and parks. (These hot spots are easy to find; lots of people will be milling around on their ‘devices’). The cards that allow internet access can be purchased at most hotels. Limited connectivity takes some getting used to but certainly has its advantages. It was nice to see people talking to each other in restaurants, not continually checking their phones.
• A trip to Cuba can seem expensive, mostly because you will need to prepay most of your costs including transfers, hotels, transportation/visits and some meals. The current shortage of good hotels also puts upward pressure on prices. There are quite a few new properties under construction. Once opened, the competition should cause prices to fall and quality to increase. If you are looking for a bargain, you may wish to wait.

What we loved:

• Live music everywhere.
• Beautifully executed authentic cocktails.
• Some of the new, upscale restaurants in Havana.
• Riding in and just seeing “Classico” American cars from the 1950’s.
• Experiencing a night in a ‘casa particular’ homestay in Trinidad.
• The warm and welcoming people.

Be aware that:

• Most hotels that call themselves five-star are actually four star or slightly lower. It’s too early to go to Cuba if you require luxury. It will happen, but it’s not yet available.
• There are a lot of stairs. You need to be able to navigate 2 to 3 flights of stairs with ease.
• Outside of the hotel, it’s common to find toilets without seats (even at the airport).
• Bring lots of small tissue packs as many bathrooms have no toilet paper.
• Bring hand sanitizer.
• Drink only bottled water (buy it at your hotel or have your guide help you find it).
• It’s difficult to access the internet, even in good hotels. Be prepared to be “off line” most of the time.
• We never saw a mosquito (even in August) but bring bug repellent just in case.
• US credit cards and ATM cards are useless in Cuba: you must bring cash!

Mary Bai is a Travel Consultant with CTCAdventures in Hanover, MA