Reporting from Cuba

During the last week of March, my mother and I took our second trip to Cuba.  Previously, we followed Ernest Hemingway's footsteps.  This time, we followed another famous "Ernest": Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Che is beloved by the Cuban people and his picture is everywhere!

In Santa Clara, we paid our respects at Che’s mausoleum – a reverent spot hosting an eternal flame. The nearby museum displays his white medical coat, baby pictures, his report card from elementary school in Argentina, and his many weapons. All the photos on the wall showed him as a handsome and charismatic leader. And his statue towers over the city.

Also, this train museum marks the spot where Che and his troops derailed a train used by Batista’s soldiers. This battle marked the beginning of Che’s revolutionary victories.

And, a monument on top of a hilltop celebrates the Battle of Santa Clara and the July 26 Revolutionary movement, led by Che and Castro.

On our last trip, we visited Cueva de las Portales, the cave where Che led his band of revolutionaries during the 1966 Cuban Missile Crisis. We hiked in this cave, with the expert supervision of a local guide. We saw the creaky bed where Che slept and the phone that Che used to direct his troops.

Reflections on My Cuban Travels

As a fortunate three-time traveler to Cuba in less than 16 months, I've noticed some changes and similarities.

What Costs Less?

Airfare from the US is now much cheaper. Previously, we paid approximately $400 per person to take a 1 hour charter round trip from Miami to Havana. This trip, our direct flight on JetBlue from Ft Lauderdale to Camaguey was $89 per person. Nice.

What Costs More?

With the explosion of AirBnB across the island, you can now book Casa Particulares in every community in advance. What used to cost $20 - $30 per night, now runs $30 - $45 night plus a $9 AirBnB service charge.  In the past, to book a casa in advance, I’ve sent money to bank accounts in Italy and the Netherlands through many different cash transfer services. This time, I booked with VISA on my AirBnB account. Since my picture is on my AirBnB account, everyone said, “Hola Jan” when I knocked on the door. The service was very personal, and the prices are still reasonable.

What’s the Same?

Restaurant entrees still ranged between $4 (shrimp at a local café in Santa Clara that was recommended by a local) and $18 (4-course meal at a restaurant that is frequented by tour groups overlooking the water at the tip of Cienfuegos.) Prices may be higher in Havana, but we didn't go there this trip.

Car rental is still expensive. This time I booked with Rex, the premium agency, and our car was fine (except that sometimes it would stall when I was going slow in an intersection.) At least the trunk and doors all locked (which was different from the car we had from a cheaper agency last time.)

The people are still gracious and friendly. We had some delightful “people to people” encounters – including this mother/son duo who invited us into their tiny two room apartment for coffee.

And these gals who leaned over our car to give directions. (They even gave us a gift!)

In Trinidad, when this man at a neighboring table heard that mama is 94 years old, he bought us a second round of mojitos and joined us for the photo.

Although the majority of the tourists sill come in groups, we did meet several American couples and families who were traveling on their own. They had checked the “people to people” or “humanitarian” boxes on the Cuban visa form.

Cuba is still welcoming, wonderful, and a bit wild. The '57 Chevys bring back memories; the rum flows freely; the traffic is sparse; and most of all the people greeted us with open arms and gracious hospitality.

It was another fabulous trip.  I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to share this time with my mom and the many Cubans we met along the way. Viva Cuba!

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Mama and I are now back in the USA (and back online) after an amazing journey to Cuba.  We had a wonderful time following in Papa Hemingway’s footsteps.

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For the first two nights in Havana, We stayed at the Hotel Ambos Munos, the hotel where Papa lived in room 511. Here he wrote A Farewell to Arms. The hotel lobby is adorned with his photos, and is a "must-see stop" on the tourist walking tour.  Guests of every nationality stopped by to pay homage to the writer.

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Room 511 is now a museum, and it remains just as Papa left it.

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We learned that Papa liked his bed in the corner, so he could feel “Havana’s sun on his face” when he woke up.

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I’m not sure anything in the room has been changed since the hotel was built. Our room was on the 4th floor, almost directly beneath Papa's room, so we shared the same view. Luckily, our room had been slightly buffed up, so it was quite comfortable.

The original 1921 elevator that transported Papa to Room 511 is currently out of order, so most guests climbed the stairs to their rooms. But, since I was traveling with a “senior citizen”, we were allowed to use the Service Elevator. We learned how to negotiate through the maze of the kitchen to reach the small elevator. Often we traveled with the staff.

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In Havana, I (once again) sampled Papa’s favorite drinks at the famous watering holes. A mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio:

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And a daiquiri at La Floridita, where a bronze of Papa sits at the bar:img_2493

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A highlight was the tour of Finca Vigia, Papa’s house in a suburb of Havana. He moved here from the Hotel Ambos Munos. We had a hard time finding the house, as signage in Cuba is quite limited. We found that one of the best ways of navigating was to pick up a local hitchhiker, who often could direct us to our destination.

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We peeked through the windows and felt like we were flies on the wall. Had Papa just left his glasses on the table to go into the other room?

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p1130106We especially enjoyed the “up close and personal” walk around the Pilar, the boat which was the protagonist of Hemingway’s Boat. We could imagine the many antics and adventures enjoyed by Papa during his 20 year tenure in Cuba.

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So Papa, thanks for the memories and inspiration for these great trips!  Mama and I had a fabulous experience and feel very fortunate that we could share this week together.

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We’re now back in San Francisco, after a whirlwind Cuban adventure. On our last night, we visited the Tropicana – Havana’s premier cabaret and nightclub which has operated for over 75 years.

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The gigantic cast of this extravaganza was talented and beautiful. They surrounded us on all sides – on the stage, up in the air and on both sides of our seats. Most of the gals (5’10”” and around 110 pounds) wore costumes that were as colorful as they were miniscule!

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Ed was able to get up close and personal with this showgal, as he “researched” the fabric and sewing in her outfit.

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The singers blasted out the Cuban hits, while the live orchestra provided a lively beat. The gymnasts performed expertly and wowed the crowd.

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We arrived at the Tropicana by taxi – this time it was a ’57 Cadillac, complete with tail fins.

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On the way home, we actually rode in a yellow cab – a new model fiat that had A/C! When we told this driver we were from SF, he said, “oh, there is so much opportunity there.”

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So, adios Cuba! Thanks for the fabulous experience. We loved the art, architecture and the famous graffiti.

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When we play our CDs at home, we remember the music resonating from every corner.

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Ed expertly drove the rental car without any hiccups.

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And Jan negotiated lodging and dining in Español, and managed our CUCs.

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Traveling independently was fabulous. A NY Times article published on 12/16, included this question, “Can any American citizen visit Cuba now?” Here’s the response:

“As long as the trip falls within one of 12 purposes, Americans can go to Cuba without having to apply for permission, in the form of a license, from the government. The 12 categories of legal travel include visits to close relatives, academic programs for which students receive credits, professional research, journalistic or religious activities and participation in public performances or sports competitions. As Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba related law, put it: If somebody wishes to travel to Cuba and they “can’t think up a way to fit into those categories, they are not trying."

So, if a trip to Cuba is in your future, we’re happy to share more details to anyone interested in conducting a research or journalistic expedition.P1110759

This is our final post about Cuba.  We wish all our readers Happy Holidays and we'll see you when we're on our next adventure in 2016.

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In Cuba, we were able to rent a car -- a 2010 Renault (not a 48 Chevy!) to drive around the country and visit villages, colonial cities, and historical landmarks.  We were glad that we had booked in advance, since we heard that all rentals were sold out until the end of January.  This gave us ultimate flexiblity, as we were able to plan our days on the fly. We visited  many interesting places, including this fort from the 1500s!

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The original AirB&B lives in Cuba! But, when you think of a B&B, please don’t visualize a charming Vermont inn with four-poster beds and thick down comforters. Instead, the “casa particular” is a spare room (with private bath) in someone’s home.  Renting a room for one night can bring in as much income as the typical salary for an entire month! We did not have any reservations for the “casas”, but some are now listed on AirB&B and accept reservations by email. Since there are no credit cards in Cuba, we heard that landlords sometimes give away a reserved room if someone else shows up with cash in hand.

The landlady network is robust! In Cienfuegos when the first casa was full, the gracious landlady called around to her network of friends to find us a room. When these were all “occupado”, she jumped in our car and drove around with us, asking the locals whose room might be free. After ten minutes of driving through a scenic part of the city, we landed at Casa de Nancy, where Nancy welcomed us with open arms. (This was one of our more basic accommodations.)

The typical room costs 25 CUC ($30). Breakfast is an additional five CUC per person. We think that the breakfast revenue is taxed differently, since no official receipts were needed for this transaction. For the room, we had to register in a logbook, complete with our passport number and Cuban visa.

The rooms and bathrooms ranged from very basic to quite spacious. Some mattresses were from 1940. Others were a bit more plush. We definitely had to bring our own pillow, soap and toiletries. At the end of our stay, we gave our hostess a bag of toiletries and health supplies (q-tips, lotion, shampoo, floss, etc.) that we had purchased at Walgreens in SF. All the hostesses appreciated this, as it is impossible to purchase niceties in Cuba.

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Many casa particulars are listed on a “Cuba Junky” app, which we purchased for our phone for $2.99 on iTunes. It’s managed by a Dutch entrepreneur and lists many casas alphabetically by city, even though it’s impossible to bookmark ones that look good and/or correlate their locations on an integrated map. We had to manually put marks on the map in the guidebook or else just look around as we drove. Very quickly we learned that a mobile travel app is somewhat useless without Internet access.

We also stayed in four different hotels, booked in advance with a credit card through the Cuba Travel Network website. Our favorite in Havana was the Hotel Raquel, a 1910 lovely, with original details and a glorious atrium. We appreciated the Jewish heritage of this hotel. Our room was even named “David”! Each room had a mezuzah on the door frame and there was a working menorah in the lobby to recognize Hanukkah.

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We enjoyed many delicious meals at Paladars, which are private homes turned into restaurants. This is a fairly new phenomenon, as in the past all restaurants were run by the state. Ropa Vieja – shredded meat (lamb or beef) that has simmered for hours became one of our favorite dishes. Grilled shrimp and lobster tail was also yummy, as were the black beans and rice. The restaurant economy is in CUC and is targeted at tourists. A typical Cuban cannot afford any of these prices – instead, locals seem to rely on very basic pizza from corner stalls and fruit from local vendors. They purchase their staples (when available) from government run shops, which often are not well stocked. Also, some locales indicate that they charge for meals in “mondea nacional”, the local peso, which is worth far less that the CUC (convertible peso).

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Sometimes the "pickin's" were pretty sparse in the stores.

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Standing in line is a way of life for most Cubans.  People have to wait to buy groceries, pharmaceuticals, and ice cream!

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In fact, there are lines all over Cuba.  Lines of bicycle taxis:

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Vintage cars:

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And school kids!

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On the Autopista (National Highway), we were often the only car as locals cannot afford either cars or gasoline.  Once in a while, we encountered other vehicles:

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In many towns, the horse cart is still the preferred means of transportation.

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And in the lush tobacco growing regions, horses and oxen perform the major farm duties.

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It was definitely a "blast from the past".  The horse transportation reminded Ed of rural Brazil in 1970.  With our car, the driving was easy although road signs were sparse. As Cuba opens up to the world, this will probably be changing rapidly.

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Devotes of Ernest Hemingway can walk in his footsteps on a trail that runs through Havana, into the suburbs, and through the northern islands.

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His home – Finca Vigia – in a Havana suburb, looks just as he left it, complete with the original Life magazines, eyeglasses on the nightstand by his bed, and a Picasso bas-relief that he purchased in 1969 for 150 French Francs. Many of the conquests from his African safaris adorn the walls.

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Although tourists cannot go inside the home, knowledgeable guides informed us about the details of each room, as we looked through the open doors and windows. We can see why this site is closed during a rainstorm, as the open windows leave the interior very exposed to the elements. (One guest bemoaned that the heat and humidity will wreck this history … but the guide noted that there were no funds to install A/C or heaters.)

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We sampled the “wares” at his favorite watering holes – for example, daiquiris (double rum, no sugar) at El Floradita.

As described in Islands in the Stream, (which Jan read on this trip), his likeness is positioned at the bar “in a corner with his back to the bar so he could see who was entering”. (Note the pic of Fidel over his shoulder.)

As part of our "research" into his Havana habits, we enjoyed the mojitos at La Bodegita del Medio, another favorite haunt. (Leslie noted that this was part of the "cocktail beat".) We met these CPAs from Guadalajara who invited us to visit them in Mexico next time we’re in town!  If you’re wondering where Jan’s hat is … she left it at the hotel!

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In his own words, Papa describes his "fav " beverages:

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Since Hemingway also lived in Ketchum, Idaho, we feel somewhat of a bond with “Papa”. Prior to this trip, we paid respects to his grave, which is just down the street our vacation house. So, Papa thanks for letting us peer into your life. You left quite a legacy!

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Imagine a place where tourists still use printed guide books; citizens stand in line to use pay phones, and there is no traffic on the AutoPista since no one can afford a car or gasoline. Internet connectivity is very limited (only in upscale hotels), and very slow. It’s a time warp back into the 1950’s.

 

With no Trip Advisor, Yelp, or Google Maps at the ready, we had to rely on our two excellent guidebooks the detailed National Geographic map that we purchased prior to departing the USA. This map even included the dirt roads throughout the country. GPS was available on our cell phones, but with no Internet to access maps it was useless.

 

Getting around in Cuba is quaint, reminiscent of the way we got around several decades ago in the rest of the world. We had to use street signs (when available) to figure out where we were and paper maps to get to our destinations.