Cuba Travel, What's New(s)?

By: Kathy Klofft

Photo Essay: People of Cuba by Jeff Klofft

 Two gentlemen read the news on the stoop on the outskirts of Old Havana

Two gentlemen read the news on the stoop on the outskirts of Old Havana

Cuba travel has been in the news again.  The President of the United States recently announced some changes in the policy of rapprochement that had been set by his predecessor in December 2014.  I'm not going to get political, because I've never been one to determine whether a place I travel to is "right" or wrong" (or even "Right" or "Left", for that matter)  We travel to experience the people and the place as it is and hope that our connection to other people helps bridge the gaps of our differences.  If we refuse to visit places where we disagree with the way they are governed, we'd probably not even be able to leave our own back yard!   Since the announcement about changes to Cuban American relations, I've had many readers and friends ask about how to go about seeing Cuba now.  They wonder if they should go before things change again, and what is the best way to do it.  So I'm revisiting our experiences and giving advice based on what I've heard and read in the last week. If you don't plan to go, you may enjoy Jeff's photos of the people we met in Cuba!

 A young man shares his art and a smile with visitors

A young man shares his art and a smile with visitors

We decided to visit in June 2016, shortly after the announcement and posted about it here:

Cuba Posts

As for the latest news, no one can predict what will happen next, but the President has asked the Treasury Department to revisit the current rules.  It appears from emails travelers I know have received from their cruise lines with itineraries to Cuba, that they have been assured they can still make Cuba ports of call.  As i understand it, individual travel that is not part of a cruise or People to People program will be examined in a different way and possibly restricted.  So with this scanty information and not knowing what the Treasury Department rules will eventually look like, here is what I'm telling my friends.

  A couple entertains during a visit to a state run restaurant in Old Habana

 A couple entertains during a visit to a state run restaurant in Old Habana

1- Nothing appears to be happening immediately.

It seems it will be some time before new rules are made and implemented.  If Cuba is on your list, I would definitely not hesitate to go as soon as possible.  The issue with Cuban travel is not safety, we felt Cuba was very safe, safer than most major cities we have visited anywhere in the world.  The problem seems to be the change in the political approach to the island nation by the United States, and Americans ability to visit freely or do business there.

 Dancers perform during the cabaret at the Hotel Nacionale in Havana

Dancers perform during the cabaret at the Hotel Nacionale in Havana

2-I would not go to Cuba "illegally" right now.

While many Americans have gone to South or Central America and simply visited Cuba from there without getting any approvals or passport stamps.  I would not do that now. There is no way to predict how immigration officials will react upon return to the United States. Also, there is no predicting that over the next 4 to 8, or more years how an "illegal" visit to Cuba might affect your ability to receive government clearances, or government benefits of any kind. We simply don't know.

 Children from an arts school in Matanzas pose just before leaving for summer break

Children from an arts school in Matanzas pose just before leaving for summer break

3-I would take a cruise that has Cuba on the itinerary

.Cuba is likely just one of the places you'll visit on a cruise, and the whole vacation wouldn't be canceled if things change rapidly.  Also, I've read that the uptick in tourism since rapprochement has lead to some food shortages for people in Cuba.  Cruises, which carry their own food on board, are a good way to lessen any of those effects. Our experience with Cuban food was that it is not very varied or spiced; most of the food we ate in both paladares (privately owned home restaurants) and state run restaurants was fairly bland, but filling.

 A man on the beach expresses his enthusiasm for Americans with his shirt and his gestures!

A man on the beach expresses his enthusiasm for Americans with his shirt and his gestures!

4-I would take a well established People to People Trip

If I wanted to take a trip to Cuba now, and didn't want to cruise or had a special interest, I would go with one of the outfitters that have offered People To People tour for years.  These trips usually revolve around meaningful connections between people with similar interests. Our trip was focused on Jazz and Art, which was of interest to our family.  Other trips involve bird watching and nature. With rapprochement, many new travel companies applied for and were approved to travel to Cuba with less developed programs.  However, the ones that were doing it first have the best connections and resources in Cuba.  If things are changing rapidly, a well established outfitter will have a better handle on how to adapt to changes than a newcomer.

 Three men struggle to maneuver a fruit cart in the streets.

Three men struggle to maneuver a fruit cart in the streets.

5-Check the rules frequently.  

What is allowed in and out of Cuba could change at any time.  Another reason to travel with an experienced outfitter is that they stay on top of these rule changes for you.  If the limits of cigars, art or rum change, they can let you know before you invest in something that could just be confiscated. They will also stay ahead of any itinerary changes required by either government. 

 A local musician who connects young jazz acts with Americans coming to learn about Cuban Jazz reacts with joy to his protegees set.

A local musician who connects young jazz acts with Americans coming to learn about Cuban Jazz reacts with joy to his protegees set.

6-If you do travel to Cuba with a cruise or tour company, be sure to keep the paperwork

The tour outfitter or cruise line will provide official paperwork that explains the legal reason for your trip to Cuba. You will need this when you return home and for future travel.   I keep mine with my passport, but remove it when passing through immigration in any country, including my own until someone asks to see it.  No one has asked to see it yet, but we never know when they might ask, so I have it ready to show that I traveled to Cuba on a legal, Treasury Department approved People to People trip.

 A young couple enjoys the sunset on the malecon in Havana

A young couple enjoys the sunset on the malecon in Havana

One of the reasons we travel is to see places that are different from where we live, to connect with people in a way that emphasizes our similarities, and seeks to understand our differences. We found the people of Cuba to be open to meeting Americans, and excited for the future. Hopefully, all your travels will be the same!

 

Cuba- Cars and Cigars! Part 2

 A group of gentlemen from California enjoy cigars after a meal at a state run tourist restaurant

A group of gentlemen from California enjoy cigars after a meal at a state run tourist restaurant

 

Nearly everyone I know who smokes asked me about bringing back Cuban cigars. Cuba is known for their excellent cigars. Is it just the allure of something we can't get in the USA? (because if there is one thing Americans are known for its for getting what we want as long as we can pay for it! )  Or are the cigars really that good? Our exchange wasn't centered around cigars but several of the men and a woman on our trip had interest in Cuban cigars, so our guides made sure they were able to explore their interests by recommending cigar bars and shops where they could buy them, during free time when there weren't exchange activities planned.

(For more about our trip see our previous post; http://www.goseeittravel.com/travel-blog/2015/7/1/cuba-we-can-all-agree-on-change.  )

We were told that all the Cuban cigars are made by the government factories, that these same factories produce all of the different "brands" of Cuban cigars. We were also told that the reason for the superiority of the cigars is due to the care taken to get the best leaves, with no stems or flavorless by products, and that they are all rolled by hand. Those folks who tried them did say the cigars were superior to what they can normally buy in the US, and several occasional smokers were feeling the effects of overindulging in them after a day of two. 

One thing I noticed as a non smoker, is that in the US, cigar smoke is intolerable to me, it will drive me right out of a venue.   But in Havana, even a room filled with smoke from Cuban cigars did not affect me the same way. Now, I know even less about cigars than cars (at least I actually USE a car in my every day life. (See our post about the cars of Cuba here; http://www.goseeittravel.com/travel-blog/2015/7/9/cuba-cars-and-cigars )  but I had the feeling that that better cigars somehow smelled better, and therefore were more tolerable to a person like myself who doesn't like them at all.  I had also fixed my attitude to expect cigar smoke because it is part of the culture here, and like a lot of things in Cuba I may not agree with- I was not visiting to express my disapproval, but rather learn about the place and its culture. 

 

 A haze of cigar smoke fills the Jazz club in our hotel. Smokers enjoyed the opportunity to enjoy a cigar and hear good music. 

A haze of cigar smoke fills the Jazz club in our hotel. Smokers enjoyed the opportunity to enjoy a cigar and hear good music. 

One of the things visiting cigar smokers enjoy about Havana is an open culture of cigar smoking. It's welcome in many restaurants, and public places.  Most places allow cigar smoking indoors and out. It's a common sight to see ash trays on restaurant tables and in the tables in the lobby of hotels. 

 We visited some famous jazz and dance clubs and recording studios used by Cuban musicians as part of our exchange. I was unfortunately just getting over a respiratory illness and had several attacks of reactive airways while in those closed in environments, even though no one was smoking during our visits.  The air quality in many places was poor and would be challenging for anyone with respiratory problems. I was fortunate to recover quickly from my issues by stepping outside and using an inhaler.

Many state owned restaurants and Jazz Clubs catering to tourists do not allow indoor smoking at all. So it's possible for tourists to seek those out, but possibly at the expense of visiting with locals.

 The Jazz club right across from the Melia Cohiba hotel in Vedado was airy, air conditioned and non smoking. Even though the band was local, we had met them earlier in the week as part of our exchange, the club was also filled entirely with South American and European tourists. 

The Jazz club right across from the Melia Cohiba hotel in Vedado was airy, air conditioned and non smoking. Even though the band was local, we had met them earlier in the week as part of our exchange, the club was also filled entirely with South American and European tourists. 

Interestingly, we rarely saw people smoking cigarettes in Cuba. We were told that filtered cigarettes are expensive and most Cubans can get inexpensive cigars (or roll their own) that are made with the twigs and other by products of the tobacco left over from government manufactured cigars. We were also told not to buy cigars on the street from Cubans because these are most likely the home rolled versions of poor quality because ordinary Cubans do not have access to the best tobacco.

There are several state run tobacco shops, and there was a shop in our hotel run by the state where all the brands were available for purchase.  At the time we traveled Americans returning the U.S. were allowed to bring back $100 worth of cigars. (Any Cuban rum brought home was also included in this $100 allowance) However, our guides explained that those guidelines can change quickly and capriciously, as the tango of opening US and Cuba relations goes on, so if you go, ask someone in the know before you invest in cigars to bring home. 

 Gentlemen in Havana enjoy a cigar while reading the two government produced newspapers. 

Gentlemen in Havana enjoy a cigar while reading the two government produced newspapers. 

Cuba- Cars and Cigars!

The very first things everyone mentions when you say you are going to Cuba are "cars and cigars". There were lots of things about Cuba that were surprising, a lot that is controversial, but one thing that knows no politics is the interest Americans have with the "cars and cigars" of Cuba.

 Some old cars along the Malecon in front of the Old Fortress. 

Some old cars along the Malecon in front of the Old Fortress. 

Cars

Not only are the old cars the first thing mentioned by many folks I told them about my trip, but they were also mentioned as one of the first things that will change with the opening of relations between Cuba and the United States. For more about the changes see my post "We CanAll Agree On Change"

(A disclaimer: what I know about cars could fit in the tip of a spark plug! That a car has spark plugs may, in fact, be the sum total of my car knowledge! So while I've done my best to identify the cars from photos and notes of what the owners told me, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of makes and models- I'll leave that the real car buffs!)  

When I placed my call to book our Insight Cuba "Jazz in Havana" people to people exchange, the staff member I spoke with mentioned that her friends in Cuba (who are lucky enough to own one!) were anxious to get rid of their "old cars", and she was certain that collectors would be happy to get their hands on them! Even for the biggest gear head, the constant struggle to upkeep these vehicles with little means and ability to import parts is a challenge, and most folks are ready for newer, easier to maintain vehicles- if they can afford one at all. Of course, most of the better preserved mid century American cars are owned by the government or private owners and serve as taxis for tourists, and given the "branding" of Cuba with old American cars, the government and those private owners supplementing their income with private taxi service are not likely to give those up! 

 The best preserved cars are government owned and operate as tourist taxis. A ride in a '57 Chevy Belair convertible costs about 1/3 to 1/2 more than a standard taxi, but is a bucket list experience for most visitors from the USA. (Photo by Alfredo Insight Cuba)

The best preserved cars are government owned and operate as tourist taxis. A ride in a '57 Chevy Belair convertible costs about 1/3 to 1/2 more than a standard taxi, but is a bucket list experience for most visitors from the USA. (Photo by Alfredo Insight Cuba)

 Cruising along Havana's Malecon in a vintage American car is "bucket list" experience for most Americans. It's unlikely the Cuban government or private taxi owners will sell cars like these that they use as tourist taxis. 

Cruising along Havana's Malecon in a vintage American car is "bucket list" experience for most Americans. It's unlikely the Cuban government or private taxi owners will sell cars like these that they use as tourist taxis. 

There were several things about the cars in Cuba that surprised me.  

1- Most people have heard about the "old cars" in Cuba. What comes to mind are the often photographed American classics from the 1950s.  What was surprising are all the 20+ year old cars, mostly simple stripped down diesel Ladas imported from communist Russia in the 1980s and early 90s. 

 An ancient and barely operational Lada was our "unofficial taxi" home one evening. While not technically sanctioned as a taxi an enterprising man was willing to drive us and we were willing to pay for the experience. While not for the faint of heart, it WAS an experience, with gas fumes, semi operational window cranks, and doors that unmatched flew open around the corners, we never laughed so hard! (Photo by Kathy Klofft) 

An ancient and barely operational Lada was our "unofficial taxi" home one evening. While not technically sanctioned as a taxi an enterprising man was willing to drive us and we were willing to pay for the experience. While not for the faint of heart, it WAS an experience, with gas fumes, semi operational window cranks, and doors that unmatched flew open around the corners, we never laughed so hard! (Photo by Kathy Klofft) 

 Another old Soviet era car sits near "Our Lady of Guadelope" art work created from old tire rims at the Muraleando Project. 

Another old Soviet era car sits near "Our Lady of Guadelope" art work created from old tire rims at the Muraleando Project. 

2- Ordinary Cubans can buy cars. This is a more recent development, but most Cubans still cannot afford them. Oftentimes, a handful of partners will pool their resources and buy a used car and share the revenue operating it as a taxi outside of their regular government jobs.  If you spot the very rare brand new vehicle, it is almost always owned by an ambassador or one of the embassies in Havana. 

 At the airport, relatives arriving from the US call upon someone who owns a car to transport the goods they are allowed to bring in for their families. A "P" on the license plate indicates a vehicle is privately owned. 

At the airport, relatives arriving from the US call upon someone who owns a car to transport the goods they are allowed to bring in for their families. A "P" on the license plate indicates a vehicle is privately owned. 

 A rare "new" car in Cuba alongside a private "old" car. 

A rare "new" car in Cuba alongside a private "old" car. 

3- Most engines in the old American cars have been replaced to operate on diesel fuel which was what was available from the Russians before the 1990s. This is the old diesel and not the new cleaner diesel used in the U.S. and Europe today, and I noticed a difference in the air quality with the old diesel and gasoline engines being used. Below is a photo essay of the Chevy we took on a tour around Havana. We were with a group of about 6 similar taxis, only 2 of them had the original engines. 

 Several of us took Chevrolet taxis on a tour through Havana including the Revolutian Square. All but one or two no longer had the original engines. 

Several of us took Chevrolet taxis on a tour through Havana including the Revolutian Square. All but one or two no longer had the original engines. 

 The mid century dash boards are well preserved.

The mid century dash boards are well preserved.

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 Riding in a car built before my time was a thrilling way to see the city of Havana. 

Riding in a car built before my time was a thrilling way to see the city of Havana. 

 fins and chrome, that's what the car lovers love to see! 

fins and chrome, that's what the car lovers love to see! 

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, was just how few cars there are at all in the city of Havana. Usually one thinks of large cities as places with traffic jams, even in palces where relatively little of the population owns cars, they still dominate the major cities! But in Cuba, because of the 50+  year embargo and the only very recent rule change allowing Cubans to own cars, there are very few cars on the road. At "rush hour" on a major ring road around the city, no more than a 1/2 dozen cars make their way down the road over the course of a few minutes. The good news is there were no traffic jams while we were there! We were able to walk across the 4 lane highway from our hotel to the Malecon with little concern for our safety and almost no waiting.

 

 A view to the Malecon, with its major ring road around the city, with no traffic and virtually empty parking lots at 5 PM on a weekday. 

A view to the Malecon, with its major ring road around the city, with no traffic and virtually empty parking lots at 5 PM on a weekday. 

We noticed that there is a lot of infrastructure for vehicles in Havana, wide roads with multiple lanes, newer constructed bridges and tunnels, but there was hardly any traffic using them. While buildings and sidewalks in Havana were often in poor condition due to lack of resources, the roads and bridges seemed to be in good shape, largely due to lack of use. 

 The main road out from Havana to Matanzas features a huge 4 lane bridge, the Bacunaygaua Bridge spanning the Yumuri River. Despite this being the main east/west route into Havana, Jeff found he had to be patient to photograph it with a vehicle on the span. 

The main road out from Havana to Matanzas features a huge 4 lane bridge, the Bacunaygaua Bridge spanning the Yumuri River. Despite this being the main east/west route into Havana, Jeff found he had to be patient to photograph it with a vehicle on the span. 

 A "busy" travel circle in Havana

A "busy" travel circle in Havana

Toward the end of our stay, Jeff decided to go stand on the traffic island in the middle of the 4 lane road that parallels the Malecon (sea wall) in the Vedado section of Havana. Despite it being a busy Saturday evening along the Malecon, patience was required to wait for a vehicle to go by to photograph! For contrast: several days earlier we had been in South Beach Miami, along Ocean Ave on a Saturday night. The traffic ground to a near halt, with people showboating in their vehicles bumper to bumper up and down the strip. 

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Overall, the "old cars" we expected to see in Cuba did not disappoint- in the city there some beautifully preserved old cars operating as tourist taxis, and lots of intersting older cars families have owned for 50 or more years and keep running with a lot of creativity and determination. And while we enjoyed traveling in and by some of those old cars during our stay, we learned that most of the people in Havana take the bus! 

 Cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, on the road in Matanzas, most Cubans (seen waiting here) take the bus! 

Cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, on the road in Matanzas, most Cubans (seen waiting here) take the bus! 

(Next post: Cigars) 

Cuba- We Can All Agree on Change

 

Change

It’s the one thing everyone, citizens of the USA and Cuba can agree on. Change is coming.  How change will manifest itself, is where the debate starts.  During our recent people to people exchange tour of Havana, the Cuban government employed guide was open and honest about answering questions about her opinions. We wandered at times unescorted, welcome to engage Cubans on the Malecon (sea wall) in Havana and in the various community projects we visited. Cubans we met, were worried about what the changes would do to their country and culture, but they also seemed excited about the opportunities.  My own opinions about Cuba were always influenced by the narrative of the exiled Cubans living here in the United States, but I realized that I didn’t always agree with their opinions on other political issues, so why should I take their word for it?  I should (wait for it!) GO SEE IT for myself!

 The Cuban flag flies alone in a plaza with dozens of empty flag poles

The Cuban flag flies alone in a plaza with dozens of empty flag poles

Our family recently took a 5 night people to people exchange with Insight Cuba, called “Jazz in Havana”.  We have had Cuba on our list to visit since a neighbor went with his Senior baseball team 5 years ago.  It moved quickly to the top once President Obama announced the normalizing of relations between Cuba and the USA in December.   We chose this itinerary because it matched the interests of our family, and was a “legal” trip to Cuba. One quick perusal of “Cuba” on Trip Advisor will show that any American can visit Cuba from several Central American countries quite easily and cheaply and no one reports they are given more than a passing glance by immigration for the gap in their passports- Unlicensed visitors from the US don’t get Cuban passport stamps, so if you enter and leave Grand Cayman in the same day and then return to Grand Cayman a week later…There’s a gap there) But we had reasons to travel legally, and so we chose this Insight Cuba for a cultural exchange that matched our interests and our schedule and it’s reputation for being an expert in legal Cuban travel.  Because the US Dept of Treasury must approve the itineraries and requires participants to participate in all activities for the group running the trip to continue getting the licenses, there are full days that revolve around meeting with Cubans about the topic of the exchange, which in our case was jazz and art. 

 

 Our daughter had the opportunity to play with the students and teachers at a school for the arts in Matanzas, Cuba

Our daughter had the opportunity to play with the students and teachers at a school for the arts in Matanzas, Cuba

My own quick read of the history is that a long time before most Cubans and most Americans were born, there was a Revolution in Cuba, where the US backed leader of Cuba was deposed and exiled and Socialism was introduced. The US hoped to muscle their guy back in power to protect its own interests, and started an embargo, hoping that strong-arming its allies into also depriving Cuba of trade would bring a quick end to the Revolution.  That didn't happen and the USSR allied with Cuba, hoping for a strategic location near it's enemy of the Cold War and supported the economy of Cuba in many ways until the 1990s. When the wall fell, and the support went away.  The 90s were a difficult time for the Cubans, with little international financial support, and little resources of their own, most of the young people in Cuba were born or lived through a time of great challenge.  

 

 A mosaic of Revolution leader Che Guevara at the Jose Fuster Community Art Project

A mosaic of Revolution leader Che Guevara at the Jose Fuster Community Art Project

Years later the embargo and it’s effects on Cuba are still in play.  The best analogy I heard about this was from our guide at the National Art Museum-  more than 50 years later this is like a blood feud between two old aunts in the family who refuse to speak to each other; no one remembers exactly why, but the cousins still want to play together.   For the young people of the United States and of Cuba, this is not their fight.  Young Cubans want to make progress, whether that means iphones and internet, or having the ability to earn a living and some extra. Young Americans are curious about a place that has been off limits for reasons they may not have fully explored in history class.  My own opinion is that every country and form of governance has it’s challenges and has its benefits.  The only way for the people of one place to see if there is something better somewhere is else is to be open to the differences and  learning about them.

I personally try not to allow judgment to enter in the equation (this is a “good” place or “bad” place) because the United States is one very big glass house.   It seems there are lessons to be learned in what works and what does not in every society and the best way to better any society is to be open about sharing those ideas and for people to connect, which is exactly what we did! 

 Members of our Insight Cuba Jazz in Havana group dance with dancers from the Santa Amalia project.

Members of our Insight Cuba Jazz in Havana group dance with dancers from the Santa Amalia project.

What we learned surprised us. A recent trip to Central Europe, and the Balkans introduced us to people liberated from Communism in the 90s and the mentality of the people 15 -20 years later was one of despairing. They felt that capitalism has not brought what they hoped for and many people were still waiting for things to get better. Many young people have left those countries to seek their fortunes in other places. Many people we saw were idle and a bit hopeless, not sure how to capitalize on capitalism. In Cuba we saw a currently socialist society with an entrepreneurial edge. Nearly every person we met in Cuba had a government job (making the equivalent of about $15-20) and a ration book for food and an apartment provided. But recent changes allow people to buy their own homes and cars and start small home businesses. Now it seems nearly every person we met also had a small entrepreneurial side business.  Government musicians sell CDs on the side, artists in government community projects get to keep (and pay high taxes on) art they sell to tourists. Even delivery men seem to have dual roles, delivering whatever they need to for government run restaurants while selling water to tourists. This "side" economy with outsiders is what drives the personal economies of whole families in Cuba and one of the reasons Cubans hope change will come. 

 A man makes deliveries for work, and sells water to tourists from a blue cooler, likely it came into Cuba with relatives on charters from Miami.  We saw everything from bike tires to hula hoops and baby strollers on the baggage claim in Havana on our Miami charter. 

A man makes deliveries for work, and sells water to tourists from a blue cooler, likely it came into Cuba with relatives on charters from Miami.  We saw everything from bike tires to hula hoops and baby strollers on the baggage claim in Havana on our Miami charter. 

But we also encountered Cubans who felt there was grave danger to their culture with unfettered capitalism and influx of North American culture. We encountered such joy and commitment to the arts in Cuba. The government fully subsidizes incredible art and music schools and projects with what it can, and it makes the arts accessible to anyone, not just, as is often the case in the US, people of means. There is joy in the music and the art that Cubans make, despite very real challenges in daily life we witnessed. 

My husband made his own observation shortly after arriving in Cuba and seeing how joyful and musical the people are.  He said it reminded him of the Whos in Whoville.  Despite the fact that in Theodore Geisel's (Dr Suess) children's book, the Grinch had taken every trapping of Christmas; every last wreath and thumbtack, the Whos still woke up Christmas Day singing.  And in Havana, despite a deep lack of material things caused by a long embargo, and crumbling infrastructure, the people are making music, they are making art, they are joyful and friendly, and while life is hard, they seem happy.

Cubans are rightly afraid that their unique culture and happiness despite a lack of material things might be diluted by the influx of American culture and businesses that benefit people unevenly. 

 

 Community members dance at Muraleando, where locals have created art and music projects to enliven and enrich their cultural community. 

Community members dance at Muraleando, where locals have created art and music projects to enliven and enrich their cultural community. 

Lots of questions remain as each country works through what each is willing to accept from the other, but everyone agrees, change is coming. For us it was really important to  go Cuba now (before the changes) and share what we experienced with others who might be curious. We will surely go back to Cuba in the future, (probably on a cruise ship) if the current path towards reconciliation of the US and Cuba continues. But we know it will never be exactly as it is now again. 

 Classic old US cars are still in use 50 years later. A staffer at Insight Cuba told us the Cubans she knows are as anxious to sell the old, tough to maintain relics as collectors in the US are to get their hands on them. Everyone expects the way the roads in Havana look now to change in the coming years. 

Classic old US cars are still in use 50 years later. A staffer at Insight Cuba told us the Cubans she knows are as anxious to sell the old, tough to maintain relics as collectors in the US are to get their hands on them. Everyone expects the way the roads in Havana look now to change in the coming years. 

Upcoming: we have lots more photos and stories from Cuba and plan to post about the practical considerations of travel to Cuba now, more about the art and music and people we experienced, and of course, everyone is curious about the cigars and cars! 

Where We've Been and Where We Are Going

Jeff has a running joke about me...that I'm not happy unless I have at least 3 trips booked at any given time!  And I'm embarrassed to say, he's not wrong!  Last year I traveled to the Florida and the Bahamas on Enchantment of the Seas with my mother and teen daughter. In September and October, Jeff and I traveled to Eastern Europe and Danube River cruise on AmaPrima, and we took a college visit trip to Minnesota. So it seems there is always a trio (or more!) of trips to pack for each year. But I would argue (and I do!) that this because we take a very programmatic approach to fitting in the destinations we want into an already really busy life, and generally, we plan travel well in advance. 

With short vacation times, and our usually aggressive plans to see and do a lot in that short time, we like to book trips early to have plenty of time for planning and to ensure we get our first choice of all the components we want. The best hotels, cruise cabins or guides can book up even a year in advance!  We almost always book our trips a year or more in advance.

That all changed this year!

{People with more time, and fewer responsibilities can afford to wait it out and see what specials might pop up last minute.  You can get some good deals, but usually only on trips or components that for some reason didn't sell well in the first place (think cruises during hurricane season, or hotels that might be a little down at the heels or a destination off season)  If you don't mind making those kinds of compromises to save some money; waiting till the last minute is a great way to get a good value.}   

 

 Sunset from the Grandeur of the Seas; wondering about that distant Island!

Sunset from the Grandeur of the Seas; wondering about that distant Island!

Cuba

For years, when we've cruised the Caribbean from Florida, and I've always looked out the window on our sea days as we passed by Cuba, and been fascinated about this place.  After all, the place we just left- Miami, throbs with energy and music of a huge Cuban American population there. What is the island they left like now?  It's another of the world's politically complicated place, but our travel philosophy has always been that going to a place and learning about it, meeting the people (if that can be done safely) is the best way to learn about the differences and make an informed opinion.  I knew that for years an embargo trade and travel in Cuba had left citizens of the US on the outside, and people in Cuba unable to share the stories of their lives with us.  In 2000, some limited travel on "people to people" exchanges was allowed by the US government for the reasons I mention above, but they were discontinued in 2003, and resumed again in 2011. Ever since sailing by (at quite a distance to stay in International Waters) and seeing the lights glittering on Cuba and miles of undeveloped beaches, I imagined what it might be like to visit there.  

I put a "people to people" tour to Cuba on my list, when the licenses started being offered, but having at least 3 trips booked already, I didn't exactly have a "spot" on the calendar for a trip to Cuba.  But we wanted to fit in a short trip, between other travel we had planned.  At the time I had trouble finding an operator that offered a shorter trip; several were island tours lasting 10-15 days. (Overseas Adventure Travel, National Geographic, Natural Habitat, Roads Scholar, Friendly Planet etc) That's a luxury of time we didn't have, so I put it off and other trips made the top our list.  Our daughter almost traveled there with a high school group (and we were angling to find a way to latch onto that trip- after providing some pretty good photos of a prior student exchange, we were hopeful the lure of Jeff's photos might convince the teachers to let us join as chaperons!) but the tour company the school planned to use failed to secure the necessary license and that trip was cancelled. 

On December 21st, President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba.  Politically, it will be debated, but one thing that will not be debated is that a change in US policy will mean changes for Cuba. Eventually, I imagine, US based Caribbean cruise ships will make regular ports of call in Cuba, and I will likely set foot there many times in the future.  But the announcement increased the urgency for us to see Cuba now before it changes!  This thought was confirmed when I called Insight Cuba to ask about their trips.  The representative, who has spent considerable time in Cuba, explained that her friends there could not wait to sell those old 1950s cars and buy modern ones! And I can just imagine the American antique car market salivating over those old cars coming into Miami via barge!  While we talked she confirmed my feelings that things are and will be changing in Cuba and NOW is the time to go to have a sense of that change when when I step off a cruise ship into Habana 10 years from now!

 Less than 6 months to do my research!

Less than 6 months to do my research!

So, we did something completely uncharacteristic for us!  We booked a trip less than 6 months away!! (only 6 months to plan- how will I cope!?!)  In June 2015, we will take Insight's Jazz in Havana tour. Insight offers people to people tours with guides and all the appropriate licenses. It's under the umbrella of a development organization that uses all the profits from the Cuba trips to pay for volunteer travel to other locations across the globe where they do development work.   It is only 5 nights, so fits perfectly in our schedule. The Jazz in Havana trip with visits to art galleries and museums, artists homes, and meetings with jazz musicians in Havana night clubs, is perfect for our daughters; a saxophone player and a design student.  Jeff is already salivating over the photographic opportunities, and I am looking forward to practicing my Spanish, dancing and meeting Cubans for myself in their home!

 Cuba seen from the Navigator of the Seas

Cuba seen from the Navigator of the Seas

So...what about the other 2 trips Jeff insists I must have booked? Well, there might be more than 3 booked now!  I have plans to travel to Florida next week and hope to blog live how to find "real Florida" among all the man made tourist attractions!  In April we will be sailing Adventure of the Seas from San Juan Puerto Rico, visiting Barbados, Antigua, St Marteen, St Lucia, and St Croix. Lastly, we've booked passage on the Azamara Journey from Miami to Cartegna, Columbia, through the Panama Canal and along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica in early 2016.