If you think you’ve been everywhere in Latin America, it’s likely you have not been to Cuba. The travel restrictions to Cuba have been in place since the Kennedy administration. If you went to Cuba you had to go to Mexico or some other Central American or Caribbean nation and then find a way to the island. It could be done, but getting there was always tough, and, being technically illegal, was fraught with a certain amount of tension. At Condor Tours and Travel, we have relationships all through Latin America, so when Cuba was opened to limited travel we were able to build some packages that allow you to explore this forbidden island country. Lori just recently returned from leading her first group to Cuba, and here are her experiences.
Departure on day one was out of Orlando via chartered air, as commercial flights were not flying from the US to Cuba in June. (We expect US commercial carriers to begin flights to Cuba by the end of 2016.) The flight to Havana is a short one. Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida. The airport in Havana is small – really small. There are no jet ways so you deplane down stairs. You clear customs and immigration one person at a time through a small room and are buzzed in to Cuba after a photo is taken. Even married couples clear immigration this way. Baggage claim has two carousels, and they don’t tell you which one has your bags, so be flexible. Our guide Ahmed was waiting for us when we cleared Customs and Immigration and got us to our bus. The transfer to our hotel in Havana, the Iberostar Parque Central, was a short 30 minutes. Check in went smoothly and the hotel lobby and rooms were up to Condor’s standards for our clients. The rooms were large and the appointments you would expect in any hotel. The courtyard of the hotel had music and a drink and cigar (this is Cuba) cart moving through it.
There are two types of restaurants in Cuba. Government owned restaurants and privately owned restaurants called Paladars. We had heard that the Paladars were established in private homes. That is not what we experienced. The Paladars we ate in were either on the first floor of a building where we were told the owners lived upstairs, or on the top floor of a building where we were told the owners lived downstairs. I thought this was interesting, as I expected one thing from Cuba, and got something completely different. Most importantly, the food and the service in the Paladars are excellent. We had no bad meals or experiences in these privately owned restaurants. The government restaurants were not as good. The food in these restaurants is less tasty and the service is disappointing.
Day two started with a walking tour of Havana. We visited Cuba’s capital, Old Havana, including a section of the old city’s wall. We also visited a distribution center where people bring in ration cards to get their weekly food ration. We walked through many plazas and down many streets. The people of Havana were really friendly and really wanted to talk to Americans and were very curious about us. The architecture of Havana looks much like the French Quarter of New Orleans or Casco Viejo in Panama. The buildings are ornate but very run down. Shopping is very limited in Cuba except for art and books.
On day three we boarded our bus to visit a cigar factory. We climbed to the top floor of a four story building to the rolling room. This room contained hundreds of men and women hand rolling cigars. Base pay for the rollers is roughly $350.00 a month with a bonus if they exceed their quota (about 100 cigars a day). The rollers get two 15 day vacations (summer and winter) per year and some free cigars. After the cigar factory, we visited Ernst Hemingway’s home located 30 minutes outside of Havana. The home has great views of Havana and the ocean and is reasonably well maintained. Lunch was at the Paladar San Cristobal. An excellent meal. After lunch we visited Revolution Square for a photo op and then a driving tour of modern Havana and a visit to the spectacular Hotel National. This hotel has amazing views of Havana harbor and is a landmark. We finished this day with a free evening back at the hotel.
Day four started with a long drive to the Bay of Pigs. We visited a small museum at the site and then drove on to the gravesite of Che Guevera. There is also a small museum here dedicated to Che. Both of these small museums are all in Spanish, so a guide is essential. Then we took drive to our hotel in the town of Cayo Santa Maria. The hotel was the Amelia las Dunas and was rated five stars. This is probably a liberal rating in our opinion but still had very nice grounds and a spectacular beach. The rooms were just okay and somewhat dated. The hotel served dinner as a massive buffet.
Day five started with a four hour drive to Trinidad after breakfast. There was one stop during this drive at the Manaca-Iznaga tower. On arrival in Trinidad, we had a lovely lunch at the Paladar San Jose – brick oven pizza and local beer. Our hotel in Trinidad was a Iberostar boutique hotel. It is very nice and right in the town. We took a walking tour of Trinidad which included a stop at a local bar. There was some Cuban salsa music and we tried the local cocktail called the Canchchara. The hotel was really a gem and included 30 minutes of free wifi.
Day six was back to Havana with stops in the town of Cienfuegos and Malacon. We visited the Terry Theater built in 1889 and the presidential palace and took a walking tour of Cienfuegos.
Cuba was eye opening. The people are very friendly and are very curious about Americans. English speakers are common but you can find yourself with Spanish only speakers a lot. It really helps to have a guide along and to have at least some Spanish. One quick note – many of the rest rooms in the country don’t have organic toilet paper in the stalls. It is advised to carry some CUC (local currancy) quarters with your when you’re on an excursion. The quarter is for toilet paper. We found this essential.