A few months back, I got a chance to knock another item off the bucket list: visiting Havana before the embargo is officially lifted.
With travel and trade restrictions being lightened up toward the end of Pres. Obama’s term, it seemed like time might be running out if I wanted to get this done. Fortunately, it’s probably never been easier to go.
Traveling to Cuba as an American
It’s still not technically legal for Americans to travel to Cuba as tourists, though there are a number of other “legitimate” reasons to visit the island. Even so, literally tens of thousands make the trip each year without incident – and of course, several airlines now have regular flights between the mainland and the island.
I flew out of Seattle and via LA, where I was granted a visa right there in the terminal and given a form to indicate my reason for travel. As best I can tell, these forms are never really followed up on, but exist as a legal regulation. From there it was a straight shot to the relatively tiny José Martí International Airport, just outside of iconic Havana, and a quick taxi ride into the city.
Cuba uses two different currencies: the national peso for locals, and the Cuban convertible peso, or CUC (pronounced “kook”, pegged in value against the US dollar, and worth about 25 times more than the national peso) for tourists. This weird system came about from Castro’s decision to legalize the US dollar after the fall of the Soviet Union, the act of which had destroyed Cuba’s most generous trade deals and left them hard-up for cash.
If you’re interested in going, figure out how many CUCs you need in advance and bring that many dollars (+ about 10% for transaction fees). Currency exchanges are available throughout the city, but the lines are always huge – there’s a hard cap on how many foreigners they’ll allow inside at a given time, supposedly for security reasons.
Havana Nights (minus the Dirty Dancing)
Havana is an complex fusion of African, American, and European cultures. The music that drifts throughout the streets is rhythmic and percussion-heavy, but incorporates Spanish melodies too. Though being religious at all was heavily persecuted until as recently as the late 1950s, both Catholicism and Santería (a blend of Catholic saint-worshipping and Yoruba mythology) are now very widespread, and it’s common to see people dressed in the head-to-toe white clothing of Santería initiation.
Still, in some ways Havana is similar to any other tourist hotspot. Walk down the street as an obvious foreigner, and you’re sure to get approached by local hucksters hawking any combination of cigars, mojitos, taxis, home-stays, and prostitutes. Plenty of “special deal only for you, my friend” – and I lost track of how many places had “the most famous mojitos in Havana”.
That’s not to say that the home-stays are anything shady – in fact, they’re pretty integral to travel if your budget doesn’t allow for fancy hotels. Cuba doesn’t have many traditional hostels – instead, you’ll find a wide array of casas particulares (or “private houses”), where a blue-and-white sign reading arrendador divisa (“landlord cash”, roughly) indicates that a room in a private home is open to travelers. Aside from an actual hostel (arranged in advance) on my first night in Cuba, I simply stayed in these throughout the trip.
On the books, the average Cuban’s salary is somewhere around ~$25/month, which is why so many in Havana flock to the hospitality industry (where tipping is a thing, mostly) and/or open their homes to tourists. When your official income is so low, you can really clean up by renting out the spare room for even just $15 per night.
There’s some neat stuff in the capitol city for history buffs (like seaside fortifications from early colonial days), and a few interesting sights slightly off the beaten path, but for the most part it seemed that Havana’s main attractions revolved around cigars, mojitos, and live music. Great way to spend a day or two, but – for my tastes – not much more than that. So I struck out east, to the town of Trinidad.
Even more so than Havana, visiting Trinidad is like stepping into the past. The entire town (together with the nearby valley) is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the more central parts are very well-preserved – harkening back to the time when sugar production was the biggest industry around.
A sprawling town of cobbled streets and pastel homes, Trinidad was surprisingly lively and full of people – tourists and locals alike. Our hired car did put a heavy dent in the local crustacean population, unfortunately. We may never find out why the crab crossed the road, but it was a suicide mission.
There are also some pretty good museums here. I visited the Museo Histórico, which houses tons of artifacts from Cuba’s history including revolution-era military vehicles, weapons, and documents. The museum’s tower, reached via a narrow and rickety staircase, offers a remarkable vantage of the town and surrounding landscape.
Whereas Havana’s historic appeal is somewhat trampled by huge crowds of foreign tourists, Trinidad is a stronger representation of Cuba’s (relatively recent) past. Definitely worth at least a couple of days to explore at a leisurely pace. Just be aware of the humidity – I was a little ahead of the high season, but it still got to be pretty sweltering in the afternoon.
Did Cuba meet my expectations? Should you go, too?
I’d say so. In Cuba I found an amazingly different way of life from the USA, especially for somewhere so close by. A country that, though it hadn’t escaped the modern world entirely, was in many ways frozen in time.
Don’t expect a whirlwind tour of excitement (unless you really seek it out). But if modern history and world cultures fascinate you, Cuba won’t disappoint. And of course, if sunny days packed full of mojitos and live music sounds like the perfect way to fill out your vacation, it’s tough to imagine a better destination.