Carla Itzkowich, President and CEO of International Contact, and her husband, Company Chief Media Officer Jon Golding, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in Havana, Cuba. With Cuba so much in the news, we decided to share comments and stories from Jon Golding’s personal Facebook page here on our blog. There are links below to even more photos on Facebook as well. Click on any of the pictures to them full size.
IF YOU WANT TO GO TO CUBA
We’re in our 50’s, in excellent physical condition, speak fluent Spanish, have traveled around Latin America and love to hang with people in the street. If that’s not you, you should ignore some of our travel advice and find a good tour to hook up with where you stay in good hotels and have first class guides. It’s not that no one speaks English, but it’s likely that anyone you meet who speaks it wants something from you. The panhandlers, whatever language they speak, are VERY aggressive in Cuba–so much for Communism.
Let me elaborate just a bit more.
The Obama administration’s lifting of travel restrictions make this trip easy for most Americans to go, but there are still a few logistical hurdles to cross that can make this a difficult vacation for those who have not spent much time in Latin America; indeed, someone who can communicate fluently is a must in your party. Although you can enjoy Cuba without a Spanish speaker, you’ll only get half the story and are likely get ripped off once or twice.
These barriers actually made the destination more attractive to us: a chance to experience the last true Communist state, frozen in time since the early sixties, before the inevitable commercialization of the West wipes away this culture that has limped along the last 55 years. It was the right choice because despite what I’ve said above, Cubans overall are big hearted and friendly, and that is something that never grows old. It no doubt helps their sunny disposition that their government has made them literate, and their health care is free.
WHAT U.S. LAW CURRENTLY SAYS AND HOW WE WENT THERE
The current state of law is pretty clear. Americans can travel to Cuba for any of 12 official reasons. The reasons vary from visiting a relative already in Cuba, to education, to religion and humanitarian help. The key factor here is that you may NOT travel to Cuba for tourism (no one will verify this, so just get your story straight). The choice became easy when our nephew, Ilan, decided to spend his year studying abroad in Havana.
Before boarding the flight to Havana, you will also need your US passport, you will need to fill out a form from your Air Carrier (here’s the one from Aeromexico) that details your reason (out of the 12) for going. You will also need to purchase a Visa for Cuba (around $30 at the airport) that will be stamped in Cuba (instead of your passport) on entry and departure.
For us, all this happened in Mexico. There are a few charter flights one can book that will take you from Florida to Havana, but we found the scheduling limited and the costs a bit high. We were able to book the whole trip through Aeromexico on dates around our anniversary. You can fly to Havana from Mexico City, or as we chose, through Cancun where we spent a few days prior to leaving for Havana.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
We spent a great deal of time before our trip exploring what to see and watch out for on travel websites like Trip Advisor. I can’t advise doing this strongly enough. The intention of this blog is to pass on as much basic information as we have, but there is a lot you can do to guarantee that you get the most out of your time in this rare gem of a country. I could spend this whole blog explaining to you the issues around their two forms or currency (one for tourists and one for locals), and how there is no ATM or Credit Card service for your American bank cards (so you must take what you plan to spend with you), but instead I’ll just say: do some homework.
WHERE AND HOW WE STAYED
There are many fine and beautiful hotels in Havana, however we made our arrangements through Air BnB to rent a small two bedroom apartment, which turned out to be a blessing as the fellow we rented from, Raul, helped us in many ways to get settled into the area and the culture. One bump in our plans was when the people staying in our Condo ahead of us got into trouble with the Government (doing business deals in Cuba is against the law) and they were put under house arrest while their case was settled. Raul scrambled and found us lodging in Habana Vieja for two nights and in Vedado for three. It turned out in the end that breaking up our stay was a great move, because it gave us a more intimate look at both parts of the city.
We enjoyed Illan’s great hospitality and meeting all his friends! About 15 Spanish-speaking Americans. They were all impressive 20-22 year olds from Ivy League schools with varied interests. All professed joy and amazement at being disconnected. They told us they have had some of the deepest conversations of their lives since they got to Cuba. With them we were lucky to enjoy the night life, karaoke, video dancing and Fabrica de Arte mentioned below. We look forward to you all visiting us in California. Shout out to: Angela, Nate, Caleb, Troy, Corey, Camille, Nicolette, Daniela, and Sabine.
Mostly by Taxi. There are busses, but these are overcrowded and somewhat dangerous. If you have a Spanish speaker, it’s cheaper to flag down a Maquina, usually one of those classic cars you see in the photos. They drive specific routes back and forth all day, and if the driver is going your way (and you can squeeze in!), you can usually come along for a reduced fee.
There is little problem finding a place to eat in Havana, there are restaurants everywhere. What is tricky, is finding a GOOD place to eat. Cuban food is surprisingly bland, owing to a shortage of spices, the result of a communist system that doesn’t reward the production of items that are not staples to the national diet. That said, Havana has some dynamite places to eat in, you just have to get to know someone in the area who can clue you in. Besides the fried plantains (banana) you’ll get with every meal, you will find most places serve an interesting mix of Latin and Anglo American dishes, and you’ll rarely have to worry about anything being too spicy; we often asked for, or brought, hot sauce to spice up our meals. Pizza is offered in a surprising number of places, and while the quality of meat and poultry is a bit lower than stateside, there is abundant fresh seafood.
Shopping is dicier than eating out. Most staples can only be purchased in the State controlled store and while prices are low, selection is nonexistent. Better food (and fresh produce) can be purchased on the street, but like the restaurants, you have to know where the good vendors are. We made several breakfasts in the room, but ate most meals out.
It’s important to remember that everything is under surveillance, so it’s not smart to make loud political proclamations in the street. It’s also true that many people who live there have strong feelings of support for the Castro government. There are, however, plenty of people who despise the Castro government, who are disgusted with the condition of the country, and can’t wait for its collapse. “Socialism is dead!” one cab driver told us, “Fidel was a fool not to see it coming and change to something else.” Another driver, whose car sported a tiny Stars and Stripes inside, told us “I feel like I am in a prison, I want to escape to America.” I continue to hold the belief that nothing will hasten the end of Cuba’s communist government like American tourism. The more Cubans see what they are missing, the more likely it will change. It will be hard, especially on the poorest Cubans for whom life is already pretty tough, but one day I believe we will look on the Communist Army cap I bought the same way we look at Civil War caps, a souvenir of a failed form of government.
WHAT WE SAW:
At the North-Western edge of Havana sits Morro Castle, an old fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay. In Spanish its full name is Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, named after the three biblical Magi of the Nativity. The design was drawn up by the Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli; originally under the control of Spain, the fortress was captured by the British in 1762, and was returned to the Spanish under treaty terms a year later.
One of the more famous landmarks of Cuba, it can be seen from just about anywhere in the city and affords a spectacular view of the bay. We caught the sunset there.
HABANA VIEJA (Old Havana)
Our first apartment was in the heart of Habana Vieja just blocks from the National Museum of Art (more below). It’s worth mentioning that with little construction happening on the island since 1960, all of Havana looks “old,” but the cobblestone streets and colonial buildings in Old Havana are truly spectacular.
The area is filled with “Plazas” dedicated to different aspects of the culture such as Plaza de la Catedral (Plaza of Cathedral) or Plaza de la Revolución (Plaza of the Revolution), and no matter where you stand there will be something amazing on all four sides of you. It’s not unusual to be enraptured
with something beautiful that’s right in front of you, only to turn and see something equally fascinating right next to you.
You’ll hear a lot of street music in Havana, I can’t recall a place in Latin America where this is so prevalent, but in Havana Vieja it seemed there was a group playing on almost every corner. Our Apartment looked out on a small cafe square and we could hear music from our terrace all day long.
MUSEO NACIONAL DE BELLAS ARTES
The National Museum of Art is 4 floors of Cuban art from the earliest to the modern, and like the National Museum of Fine Arts, you could spend most of the day here going through the floors and collections. Inexpensive to visit and worth the trouble, it borders Habana Vieja
FABRICA DE ARTE CUBANO FAC
One Havana night spot well worth your trouble to see is the Fábrica del Arte Cubano FAC. It’s a four story warehouse that is part nightclub, part disco, part performance space, part art gallery, and all fun for all ages. You are issued a “drink card” when you enter, and pay for all your drinks when you leave (stiff penalties for losing your card!).
In one large space you might listen to a string quartet, followed by a small orchestra giving a class on famous baroque music styles, another space might have a live Rap Concert, yet another space a disco, and in between these spaces are numerous installations of painting, sculpture, and other items you might not have considered art, all framed by places to get a drink. There are large open spaces to relax and talk, there are quite intimate spaces where no one says a word. A bright hip spot of modern culture in the middle of a time warp, check it out!
To the east of Habana Vieja is the Centro, or downtown. Here we saw some new construction, but also classic structures like the Capitol building. The old classic hotels still dominate the city line here, and these large hotels are the only places where one can buy internet service. Connections are not cheap or very good, so the less you need it, the better.
Probably the most modern part of the city, and the skyline boasts a number of skyscrapers and early sixties design motifs. It’s also very close to the Ocean. During a recent hurricane the area became so flooded people in these tall ocean side buildings were trapped in the upper floors for days.
182 Kilometers (approx 113 miles) or about 2.5 to 3 hours southwest of Havana by car is both the town and valley of Viñales. The town is small and notable for the many colorful one-story wooden homes with porches that line the roadway. Many of these are Casas Particulares, like a Bed and Breakfast with rooms for rent where you can actually stay with a family–a great way to get indoctrinated to the culture. Most of these Casas Particulares proudly display the names of the family hosting you on the front.
The Valley of Viñales itself is an ecological preserve of staggering beauty, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rumored to be Fidel Castro’s favorite place in Cuba, it’s an area rich in green mountains and valleys, tobacco farms, caves, and local tourist attractions, and we took in all of them.
We self-toured this valley with a driver provided by Raul, and it quickly became clear that Tourism is where the people of this lush valley makes their money. We began with a visit to a typical tobacco farm at the mouth of the valley. The tour was fascinating as we learned about the various crops and animals the farmer raised to survive out here, and we especially enjoyed the tour of the drying shed. This was followed by a trip to the small cantina on the premises, where we were encouraged to have a drink and sample their products (in hopes that we would purchase some cigars). What is also true is that the whole affair was well rehearsed for the tourist, and while the cigars were quite nice (we purchased some for gifts), we were fairly certain that the expensive cigar bands with names like Montecristo and Cohiba were the only part of these cigars that actually came from those august brands.
It was a similar bittersweet story for the other tourist attractions in the valley. For example, the Cave of the Indian is beautiful, surrounded by lush tropical flowers and greens, and the cave itself is quite impressive. However the sharp edges and rocky floors have been ground away to make it easy for folks to walk through, and the place is so packed it’s a one-hour wait for the boats inside the entrance to carry you across a river that runs through it. There is a man dressed in a loincloth outside, standing in front of his tiny teepee, who will explain what life was like here for the Indians, and other bits of cognitive dissonance that tries to present something that nature had already done better.
Perhaps nothing makes this point as well as the Mural de la Pre-historia (Mural of Pre-History). Showing the evolution of life from one-celled organisms to people, it was painted on the side of a mountain in the 1960’s by a government worker who was a fan of Diego Rivera (but with nowhere near the talent). Commissioned by Fidel, it is still considered a big attraction and people pay around $15 to see it up close. Not really worth the money in my opinion, we took these shots from outside the park.
You might think from the reviews above, we didn’t enjoy this trip, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The beauty of this valley is beyond compare; everything in it is lush, colorful and majestic. The overlook at Hotel Los Jazmines is one of those places where one falls into a stunned silence at the beauty of the natural world, standing quietly for hours, taking it all in, frame by frame, until your mind finally incorporates the view into your soul.
VALE LA PENA (Worth the trouble)
I hope this article provides a small taste of the big experiences waiting for Americans who decide to take the plunge and see this island of contradictions. There is staggering beauty and poverty all around, but everywhere there is also the warm-hearted spirit of the Cuban people. It is our hope that this spirit will serve them well through the inevitable spear of change, which our visit, no doubt, represents the only the tip of.