Cuba a la carte: Forgoing tours brings travel challenges
Nancy Trejos, USA TODAY 12:39 a.m. EDT July 17, 2015
HAVANA — At Parque Central, a park anchored by a statue of national hero
Jose Marti, a favorite pastime among Cubans is to try to guess one’s
“Mexico,” a man shouts at me.
“No,” I respond.
“De dónde eres?” he asks. (Where are you from?)
“Estados Unidos,” I reply.
My answer immediately elicits excited responses.
“America!” cab driver Roberto Garcia exclaims as he switches to English.
“Now Cuba and America is together.”
The USA and Cuba are still a long way from being together, but they are
inching towards a reconciliation after more than half a century of feuding.
President Obama’s administration is moving to resume diplomatic ties
with our foreign neighbor just 90 miles from Key West. In January, the
administration eased travel restrictions, allowing U.S. citizens to
visit Cuba for 12 approved purposes, including religious activities and
professional meetings. The USA and Cuba plan to open embassies in each
The dramatic reversal in policy has many U.S. citizens positioning
themselves to explore the elusive island.
In 2013, about 570,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba, many on approved
educational programs called people-to-people tours, which were
introduced by the Obama administration in 2011. Last year, the number of
U.S. visitors grew closer to 700,000, according to the World Affairs
Council of Philadelphia.
U.S. citizens are still not allowed to visit strictly for leisure, but
their options for tours and flights are expanding. Last week, Carnival
Corp. announced that it would begin people-to-people tours to Cuba
through its new social impact-focused fathom brand. JetBlue just began
offering a New York to Havana flight through Cuba Travel Services, a
charter flight company.
Cuba already has a thriving tourism industry, with Canadians and
Europeans as their top visitors. But the recent developments have many
wondering if the quaint island will soon be forced to step into the future.
Not much has changed here since the embargo started in 1959. People
drive around in 1950s Buicks, Fords and other vintage cars. In towns
outside of Havana, many even commute by horse and buggy. And in a world
where Starbucks and McDonald’s are omnipresent, it’s refreshing not to
see a single one for days.
“I wanted to come before it changes when it’s still shabby chic because
I think it is going to change,” says Gary Cummins, a British tourist I
meet in Vinales Valley, a tobacco-growing region about two hours outside
of Havana. “I think it will get busier.”
My one week in Cuba, however, has me convinced that Cummins need not
worry too much. It will get busy, but change will take time.
Hotel rooms get booked quickly, restaurants often run out of food, those
charming vintage cars break down, iPhones don’t work, and Wi-Fi is hard
to come by.
“It’s a fairly complicated destination,” says Eddie Lubbers, founder and
CEO of Cuba Travel Network, which has been helping travelers book trips
to Cuba for 13 years.
I strike out at my first attempts to book rooms directly on the hotels’
websites, so I turn to Cuba Travel Network, which has an outpost in
Amsterdam and offices in Cuba. The company secures me rooms on separate
nights at the Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Florida and Hotel Raquel, three
charming historic properties in Old Havana. I pay for them with my U.S.
credit card, which most Cuban vendors would not accept.
For my nights in Trinidad, I reach out to AirBnB, which recently started
listing more than 1,000 “casas particulares” — or privately-owned homes
— throughout the island. Again, I use my U.S. credit card on AirBnB’s
U.S. ATM cards also do not work here. I arrive with $1,000 in cash for a
week’s stay — not exactly a scenario that makes me feel secure.
Not surprisingly, the exchange rate is not in a U.S. traveler’s favor.
Anyone switching a foreign currency to a convertible peso, or CUC, has
to pay a 3% fee. Add another 10% fee if exchanging U.S. dollars.
It’s easy to forgive those inconveniences when taking in the beautiful
Baroque and neoclassical architecture of Old Havana, listening to a band
play salsa while sipping rum, and talking to the warm and welcoming
locals. Or when climbing up to the bell tower of the Convent of Saint
Francis of Assisi in the south central Cuba town of Trinidad for a
magnificent view of the beautifully preserved UNESCO World Heritage site
and the surrounding Escambray Mountains. Or when driving down the long
and dramatic causeway to Cayo Santa Maria in north central Cuba.
My first visit to Cuba in 2012 was on a people-to-people tour. We
couldn’t break free from our group, and we didn’t have much genuine
interaction with ordinary Cubans.
For my second trip here, I opt against the comforts and confinements of
a tour. This time, I can’t avoid conversations with Cubans even if I
Cubans are fascinated by foreigners, and when I stop for traffic below
the China Town arch, Lasaro Solo Peres asks me where I am from.
Peres, a welder, says he is eager for the two countries to forge a union.
“America can invest in Cuba,” he says in Spanish. “I think it’s good for
the betterment of our country.”
He walks with me to the Parque de la Fraternidad, which was built in
1892 for the fourth centennial of Columbus’ discovery of America. It was
redesigned in 1928 when the Pan-American conference was held in Havana.
Busts of American leaders such as Simon Bolivar of Colombia are
scattered around the park.
Even Abraham Lincoln is memorialized in a bust—a reminder of a time when
the two nations were in solidarity.
Cuba has fallen on some hard times since, a result of being so
economically isolated for so long.
While foreigners use the CUC, pegged to the U.S. dollar, locals use the
national currency, worth much less.
On my first day in Havana, a woman I recognize from the tour booking
desk at the Hotel Inglaterra approaches me while I am taking a stroll
“America!” I hear once again.
She has just finished her shift and offers to take me to a “tobacco
cooperative” where I can get cigars at a discount. If I buy cigars,
she’ll get a finder’s fee that she can use to buy milk for her son.
It’s not the last time I get such an offer, or plea.
But there are signs of progress.
Gustavo Suarez, who was born in Cuba but left for New York when he was
5, has noticed a change since he was last here a decade ago.
Some Cubans are now allowed to run small businesses such as paladares,
or restaurants. Others can rent out their homes as casas particulares.
Many of the crumbling buildings with rusty wrought iron balconies that
stand side by side with Old Havana’s elegant architectural gems are
“The private businesses have really made a difference,” Suarez says.
“The economic dynamism is something I had never seen before.”
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