In Cuba, as an uncertain future inches closer, it's still a step back in
By Moriah Balingit July 28 at 4:30 PM
For many travelers, the goal is to physically move — to be flung through
airspace and to cross borders — but to remain in spaces that are
comfortably familiar. They would prefer to speak English and to use U.S.
currency and to avoid, except for those incidental times when fetching a
drink or a towel, any contact with the locals.
Many others crave the opposite — not so much a vacation but an immersive
experience, sharing the food, sharing language and picking up on the
tiny details that shape daily life. Whether or not you desire it, this
is the kind of experience the average traveler is likely to have in
Cuba, because it is practically mandated by law.
The law — while relaxed — still puts strict limitations on what
Americans can do when traveling to Cuba, requiring cultural exchange
activities for many travelers. Some travel operators have interpreted
the rules to mean that all-inclusive resorts — those booze-soaked
cocoons popular in the Yucatan and elsewhere in the Caribbean — are
off-limits to Americans (though they do exist). The travel restrictions
and U.S. embargo — which will remain in effect until it is lifted by
Congress — means travel to Cuba is not easily planned on a whim.
But it is well worth the legwork. Cuba had long been a place of distant
fascination for me. When President Obama announced that he would reopen
diplomatic relations with the island nation, the urgency to go grew. (I
spoke to many travelers who felt the same way, fearful that U.S.
tourists would spoil the island.)
Despite numerous novice traveler mishaps, Cuba ended up delivering on
its magic. To see the island now is to see a place in flux, to play
witness to history and to get a glimpse into the Cuban people's mix of
emotions — anxiety, excitement, fear — over the coming shift. It is to
observe mind-bending surreality, to see hints of modernity — like the
crowds of tourists and locals slumped over smartphones and huddled
around public WiFi spots — amid noisy, rumbling decades-old cars, the
omnipresent reminder of a nation slowed by the embargo.
Everyone I encountered had a view on how the island will change and
whether it will be for good or for bad: my tour guide; the geographer
and taxi driver who studied the world but had never left the island; the
man who sold me ice cream; the former nurse who made my breakfast at a
guest house in Old Havana; the doctors who ran a guest house and cooked
us fish in Viñales; the young musician who boasted that Cuba was free of
American-brand racism. And everyone was happy to share (in Spanish, mind
Every day was filled with spectacular sights and deep conversations. I
sensed that I was seeing a place that could rapidly slip away.
A cash economy
I realized that I must have sounded suspicious, speaking slowly in
Spanish inflected with a distinctly American accent.
"I don't have cash but I have money that I can transfer to you on the
Internet. Do you know about PayPal?"
The woman on the other end of the line sounded puzzled. No, no PayPal.
I was in Havana, and due to some bad counsel at the currency exchange
counter in Cancun, Mexico, (do not change your U.S. dollars to Canadian
ones, or you will lose big) my friend and I were running low on cash. We
could pay our room and board, yes, but it meant cheap sandwiches from
the tiny corner shop down the street for the rest of the week. There was
little hope of getting any more cash — the embargo, after all, makes it
nearly impossible. Had we really gotten desperate, we could have had
someone wire us money, but that would have taken time, and on vacation,
time is a premium. In the end, it meant no souvenirs — save for a few
copies of Granma, the official voice of the Communist Party of Cuba
Central Committee — a lot of walking and sticking to activities that
That is lesson No. 1 for tourists from the United States. Cuba is a cash
economy, and not a cash economy in the way you may be accustomed to
thinking of one. Americans are, for the most part, barred from accessing
their bank accounts from this tropical island. And even if we were not,
keep in mind that nearly everything in Cuba takes time, that lines — for
fruit and bread rations, for WiFi cards and at banks — have become an
essential part of Cuban life. Even though carrying cash feels
disconcerting, it will save you time, headaches and possibly a night
crashing on the streets of Havana. (Luckily, it did not come to this for
When visitors arrive in Cuba, foreign coinage is exchanged into a
special currency known as a CUC — a Cuban convertible peso. Travelers
from the United States are levied an immediate 10 percent penalty, so
some opt to exchange first to euros. But do the math before you go this
route, keeping in mind that many banks levy their own fees for
exchanging U.S. dollars into euros.
Americans wishing to visit the island now must fall into one of 12
categories and still should document their trips — keeping notes,
itineraries and receipts. The most expansive of these categories — the
one the casual traveler is most likely to qualify under — is
people-to-people travel. And that, as its name suggests, requires
getting away from a resort, out of the tour bus and interacting with
Cubans. If this is your kind of vacation, Cuba is your ideal destination.
My friend and I booked a tour through Cuba Adventures, opting for its
six-day Western Cuba tour package. We paid deposits with credit cards
online (they have offices based outside of Cuba).
Official people-to-people tours tend to be pricier than ordinary ones
and pack in a full day of educational activities while also arranging
transportation, accommodations and meals in order to ensure compliance
with U.S. laws.
While my tour was not officially licensed as a people-to-people one, it
featured many of the aspects of such a tour: stays in guest houses,
educational tours, lessons on history and politics (formal and informal,
my favorite, perhaps, being the one from the geographer, who gave me a
ride to the airport). But it had a much lighter schedule of activities,
meaning more free time. In recent months, the Obama administration has
expanded the category to allow ordinary travelers — rather than tour
groups, which charge a premium — to plot their own people-to-people tours.
Orchids and wildlife
My friend — a graduate student studying urban planning — and I began our
journey in Cancun, where we purchased a Cuban visa ($25 to $30) and
filled out a simple form given to us at the ticket counter specifying
which of the 12 categories we were traveling to Cuba under. (I went as a
journalist). Our trip happened to coincide with Obama's historic visit
to the island, but we planned ours well in advance of the White House's
While U.S. travelers have been flying to Havana for years from foreign
locales — Costa Rica and Mexico are popular — commercial airlines will
soon offer direct flights.
We landed at José Martí International Airport, gawking from the plane
windows at an island bathed in spectacular shades of green. After a long
wait in a currency line, we met our tour in Soroa, a mountainside
resort, penetrating deep into the green and winding our way through a
forest of astonishing density. The tour had arranged for a driver from
From the balcony of our guest house, my friend and I took in the views
of a setting that was reminiscent of "Jurassic Park," where the
mysterious hoots of birds competed with the bass thump of party music in
Breakfast at our guest house — and nearly every day — would bring a
rainbow's array of tropical fruit, cheese, meats and bread. The
following day, at Soroa's orchid gardens, we saw otherworldly trees and
flowers — clusters of roses that hung from trees in arrangements that
resembled globes, trees anchored into cliffsides with tentacle-like
roots. The garden sloped upwards, and on its peak we sipped freshly made
fruit juices and listened to live music. Even I, someone who regularly
manages to kill even the hardiest of succulents, found our very in-depth
lecture about the endless variety of orchids fascinating.
Later, our tour bus rambled on to a waterfall beyond a short, easy hike,
where my friend and I paddled around in the cool water among weary
backpackers and hkers.
Our next stop was Viñales, a small city further inland. From the Hotel
Los Jazmines, perched high above the valley, we surveyed a landscape
unlike any I had ever seen, deeply verdant and dominated by mogotes,
large, steep-sided hills that seem to appear from nowhere.
In this quiet town, we toured a tobacco farm and ate dinner at an
organic farm high above the valley, where a cat threaded its way through
our feet. An old man gave us a tour of the garden, showing us his
handwritten notes that identified the specimens in Spanish, French and
The following day we headed to Havana, a city still gridlocked as
President Obama touched down for a historic visit. In one of the narrow,
aging buildings in Old Havana — where a shortage of construction
supplies means the buildings show their age — my friend and I checked
into a rooftop guest house, a sanctuary from the noise and the bustle
below. From there, we could see the dense clusters of decaying buildings
and the gleaming dome of the Capitol building in the distance.
That night, hours after Obama delivered an address to Cubans, I ordered
an ice cream cone.
"American?" the server inquired in English. I nodded.
"Obama, your president," he said.
"His words," he said, giving a mock shiver and brushing his forearms,
saying with his body language: gave me shivers.
He took the cone back from me and piled on another lump of soft serve.
The next day came a sobering tour of Old Havana, from its colonial roots
to its modern turmoil. Our tour guide ended in a square where we
gathered around a statue of a naked woman riding atop a chicken, tears
running down her face while she holds an enormous fork.
It was an expression of the anguish of what was called the "Special
Period," when the dissolution of the Soviet Union devastated the Cuban
economy, leading to widespread food shortages. As our tour guide tells
it, women grew so desperate that they turned to prostitution for food.
For the remainder of our unguided trip, we strolled the Malecón — the
seawall that separates the city from the crashing waves — and wandered
the narrow, charming streets of Old Havana. In the mornings, we took
long breakfasts with a former nurse who now served as house help and
gave us a crash course on the state of Cuban politics.
We, in turn, quenched her curiosity about the United States, a place she
knew mostly through movies and state television, where one channel
seemed to play U.S. crime dramas exclusively. She asked us if all Texans
carried guns on their belts, wore hats and talked strangely.
Cubans, she said, are ambivalent about the warming relations with the
United States. A former hospital worker, she had seen the effects the
embargo had on drug shortages. But she feared what more capitalism — and
more tourists — would mean for the island.
On her recommendation, we took a group taxi to the beach town Guanabo,
waiting in a line near the Capitol to ride with a group of young men in
an old car. We dipped our toes in the powder-white sand and waded in the
warm, Caribbean water before hitching a ride back.
On my final night, I tried out some establishments that seemed to
represent where Old Havana is headed. The restaurant 304 O'Reilly served
up small plates and Spanish-style tapas. Across the street, at El Del
Frente, the walls were washed white with hip stencils of bicycles and
its rooftop bar was strung with lights.
Blended cocktails were served in tall glasses with accoutrements
meticulously arranged with tweezers. They seemed more fit for an art
show than for consumption.
The bartender told me that model Naomi Campbell has dined there. On my
first of two visits, a German television crew was filming some sort of
fashion reality show. I scrimped to ensure I had enough for a nice meal
on the final night — though this meant forgoing a taxi from a guest
house more than a mile from Old Havana and taking a group taxi on the
The bartender boasted that the tunes piped in through the speakers —
unusual for Old Havana, where establishments more often have live music
— was from a radio station in America. I told him the spot felt a little
like South Beach, very "guay," I said, employing the Castillian word for
As the sun set over Old Havana, I watched a couple dance in the fading
light, shimmying and swaying not to Cuban salsa music but to the strains
of Justin Bieber, transmitted through the warm air all the way from New
Source: In Cuba, as an uncertain future inches closer, it's still a step
back in time - The Washington Post -