VINALES, CUBA – The seven of us tourists were crammed into the 1950s-era Ford barreling through the Cuban countryside when suddenly and, inexplicably, we stopped.
Our taxi driver had pulled off the road and parked next to a sprawling ranch home adjacent to a long dirt driveway. Rows and rows of green leafy tobacco plants ran into the distance.
My two friends and I stepped out of the taxi, happy to stretch our tired legs but not quite sure what was happening.
(A note on the taxi: It was a classic-looking baby blue Ford that, despite being built in the late 1950s ran better than my long-suffering 1996 Subaru. I learned later it had, like most old American cars in Cuba, a newer Russian engine. At first, excited at the prospect of driving in such a classic vehicle my friends and I marveled at the anachronistic nature of the machine. But, after 30 bumpy minutes we realized seat ergonomics have evolved substantially. Our backs were killing us.)
As we stretched, four other taxis appeared, as if on cue, disgorging other stiff and weary tourists. At the same time a tall animated Cuban man came out of the house and headed toward us, greeting us in a jamboree of English, Spanish, Portuguese and German.
Welcome, he said. My grandfather started this tobacco plantation before the 1959 revolution. We make the finest Cuban cigars.
My heart sank. He’d hit the tourist trap trifecta. A plea to familial relationship. Cuban cigars. The revolution.
I try and avoid tourist traps when traveling. The gaudy, packaged versions of a place. Sanitized and commodified into something easily digested.
But there we were with no real recourse and, honestly, nothing better to do.
The man (named Michelito) told us he spoke five languages besides Spanish – French, Italian, Portuguese, German and English. I heard him speak three of the five, and have no reason to doubt him.
In this mishmash of languages he told the assembled tourists, a dozen or so, about the history of the place. He showed us the craftsmanship that goes into a Cuban cigar. Over strong cups of coffee, he taught us how to smoke a Cuban. And then he gave us a tour of the entire plantation showing off how the tobacco leaves are picked, dried and then rolled.
Despite my most cynical inclinations, I found myself engaged and entertained by Michelito. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this tourist trap. At the very end of the tour Michelito asked us if we’d buy some cigars. This was the only time that money was mentioned and we felt little pressure.
This sort of unexpected unfolding was my experience throughout my 17-day trip in Cuba.
Cuba, like any country, is complicated and is best taken with an open mind and open heart. But for Americans that can be particularly challenging.
For the average American, Cuba is a little known and little understood shadow adversary. A boogeyman from the Cold War still lurking, somewhat ridiculously, on the edges of our national consciousness.
President Trump has reanimated some of these hostilities claiming that Cuba is propping up the Venezuelan regime. This despite the fact that most Latin American experts don’t believe Cuba is doing this, or is even capable of doing it.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Cuban-American politics. And there are real problems in Cuba. The average salary hovers around $20 a month. Political freedom has been limited for decades (although that is changing).
In a Havana barbershop I met a man who who used to be a teacher. However, the pay was so lousy he quit that career and now works as a cook making double, if not triple, what he’d have made teaching.
On the other hand, I met a retired couple who effusively praised Fidel Castro and the core tenants of the revolution. The man had worked as an engineer. The woman as a Spanish professor at a university. Both were descendents of African slaves brought to Cuba to harvest sugarcane.
Both told me, emphatically, that the life of the average Cuban of African descent has improved vastly since 1959.
And, there is the fact that during my entire trip I saw one homeless man and one elderly woman begging. I did not stay in 5-star resorts.
My experience was one of hospitable and gracious people. People who are proud of their country and aware of its faults. People who are eager to speak to Americans and curious about their northern neighbors.
So, if you go, fight your preconceptions, forget your preferences and submerge yourself into Cuba. You’ll have a good trip.
If you go
Tours: The easiest way is to go through a travel company. A local option is ROW Adventures. Although started as a whitewater river rafting company in Idaho, ROW now takes people across the globe, including Cuba. Visit cubaunbound.com for more information.
It’s also possible to go to Cuba via cruise ship or a host of other travel agencies.
Flights: United, American, Delta, Frontier, Alaska and JetBlue all fly to Cuba. Many flights require a long layover on the East Coast.
Solo travel: It is possible to go to Cuba on your own. Your travel must fall into one of 12 types of travel deemed acceptable by the U.S. government: family visits; official government business; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; performances; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions, according to the U.S. Embassy.
When solo traveling to Cuba the airline will ask what category you’re traveling under.
The U.S. government has banned U.S. citizens from spending money at many government run shops, restaurants or hotels. To see a full list visit the U.S. Department of State’s website.
Violating these rules can, technically, lead to a $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison. However, the New York Times reports that no one has paid these fines or gone to jail.
Visa requirements: The Cuban government requires a Cuban tourist card to enter the country. The cards, which are valid for 30 days, can be purchased at the airport prior to leaving the U.S.
Accommodations: All hotels in Cuba are owned by the Cuban government, and thus Americans are not allowed to stay in many of them.
Honestly, that’s for the best. There is an extensive network of Casa Particulars, or private homes that rent rooms, like Airbnb. It’s easy to show up in a new town and find a Casa Particular. Look for the distinctive black stick drawing of a home posted on the front of participating homes. Or, you can book ahead of time using Airbnb or by visiting casaparticular.com.
Language: English is relatively common in Havana, especially in touristy places. However, English is not widely spoken outside of Havana. In my experience, Cubans are very gracious with stumbling foreigners trying to dredge up high school Spanish. Sign language, translation apps on smartphones and the occasional shared word will get you by. Still, be prepared to be confused at times.
Food: Lots of meat, seafood, rice and beans. The food is excellent. Although it could be hard to travel in Cuba as a vegan. For vegans going to Cuba check out The Nomadic Vegan blog at thenomadicvegan.com/vegan-cuba/.
Money: There are two types of currency in Cuba. The Cuban peso, which the Cubans use and the Cuban convertible peso, also called the CUC, which is for tourists. The convertible peso is roughly equal to one U.S. dollar.
American changing U.S. dollars to CUCs pay a 10% fee. If possible, change American dollars to Euros before going to Cuba to avoid this fee.
Americans are able to withdraw money from ATMs in Cuba and use some credit and debit cards. However, cash is still king in Cuba and many places don’t have card capabilities.
The politics: Recently the Trump Administration announced a “crackdown” on Cuba and hinted at banning or severely limiting travel to the island nation. It’s not clear if this will actually happen and as of yet nothing has changed in regards to traveling to Cuba. But, keep an eye on the situation as it could change.
Correction: Due to a reporter’s error this story incorrectly characterized the extent of the U.S. Governments’ prohibitions against travel in Cuba. Americans are prohibited from spending money at specific Cuban government owned businesses, not all Cuban owned business. To see a list of which businesses and government agencies are banned visit The U.S. Department of State’s website.
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