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Cuba, March 2017, what an experience!

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Apr 2nd, 2017, 07:52 PM
  #1
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Cuba, March 2017, what an experience!

I have never done a trip report before, so this will be unpolished. My user name is Novice Italy, and I joined many years ago as I was planning a trip to Italy. I have been there and other European destinations many times since, but the trip to Cuba was truly unique. I really appreciated the feedback on this site, as there was not much information in tourbooks about doing an independent trip not on a tour. I LOVED Cuba, and found travel there to be a different experience, and one that I will repeat in the near future. It was a step back in time, reminiscent in some small way to Hurricaine Katrina in New Orleans when we lost phone service, internet, and cable for quite some time (no electricity at my house for 6 weeks). People were friendly and vibrant, and my daughter (25 years old) and I felt safe at all times. We stayed in a lovely BnB with an elevator ( the only functioning elevator I encountered in Cuba) on the 8th floor overlooking old Havanna. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Like most streets in old Havanna, there are beautiful buildings, however with electrical lines up and down on the outside of all the buildings. And roosters crowing from dawn on. And people visiting on the streets at all times because of the lack of easy internet. Which was a refreshing thing. We could always tell when a hotel had internet because of the tourists and locals hovering on the street near a hotel to use (with an internet wifi card) the slow and occasionally successful internet. The afternoon we got there, we checked in and set out to look for bottled water and a bottle of wine. The wine was not to be found, but we eventually found water. The next day we encountered a store, where one points to the item after standing in a line, and purchases that item. There appears to be ONE coffee, ONE brand of butter etc. There are fruit and vegetable stands that don't appear to be governmently run. We discovered that rum and beer are readily available but wine not so much. We took a great tour with Havanna Memories and loved our tour guide. We had to work hard to get her to let us treat her to lunch, as tourist restaurants cost as much as a month's salary, where we continued to learn about Cuba. We also were able to visit a cigar factory (sweat shop) to see the operation and buy cigars to satisfy requests from home.
Cuban art museum and Revolution museum were really interesting (def told from Castro's prospective).
Restaurants: we found it very helpful to have reservations in advance. It made it easy after a day of touring to have a drink somewhere then go to our restaurant. The first night we went to Habana 61. Modern look, good seafood and traditional food, and met new friends from Canada, England and US La Guarida was great, Dona Eutimia was a very inexpensive restaurant with traditional food for lunch.
San Crisobal might have been my favorite. Great antipasto appetizer (huge tray, very reasonable), then skewers with lobster, fish, and shrimp, all beautifully prepared. The young waiter took a liking to my daughter, so after delicious flan, we had complementary aged rum and cigars, which he trimmed and lit! I have never had a cigar before and it went out after one puff, but the gesture was nice. Another great meal was at El Cocinero, followed by a visit to the strange but wonderful Fabrica del Arte. Our trip to Jazz Cafe was a bust, as the band was bland, but we taxi'd to Cafe Paris near our apartment where we heard great Jazz music.
All in all a great trip. Never felt taken advantage of, and always felt ok tipping musicians, taxi drivers, tourguides etc, given their economy and our ability.
On a final note, I have global entry and some knee issues so went sailing on through in the US without so much as a question of people to people or educational reasons. On the other hand my daughter got pulled aside and questioned extensively about did she enjoy the beaches and did she really have a tour there, and what was in her carry on. Once questioned and responding appropriately, she passed on through without difficulty.
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Apr 3rd, 2017, 02:12 PM
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Hi Italynovice,

so glad that you had such a great trip. Thanks for coming back to tell us about it and leave some tips for those who travel after you - there is a dearth of up to date info on Cuba generally.

interesting that your DD was asked about what she did on her hols - she's the first US citizen that I've read about being interrogated in that way. I wonder what they would have done if she said she'd been on the beach all the time??? They could hardly disallow her entry to the US. Glad that she got through ok, anyway.
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Apr 5th, 2017, 12:28 PM
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There is NO dearth of up to date info on Cuba if you take time to do the research.
There are knowledgable folks on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum, many of whom also post on TA, who have been going for years, and lots of new visitors posting too. In addition the guidebooks such as Real Havana, and even the more popular series like Lonely Planet, aren't so bad. Booking sites for casas particulares like Cuba Junky function well. Activities, restaurants, places to stay, all are well covered.
There is reasonable wine in most better restaurants, but locals seem to prefer beer or rum. Like many things, wine is available, but there are shortages of all items in certain areas and at certain times. Expect such situations in Cuba.

annhig, on arrival from Havana in Charlotte yesterday, I was asked what the purpose of my trip was. I was so exhausted that I almost blurted something I shouldn't have, before I recovered myself and gave the "excuse" (official OFAC reason) I used.
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Apr 9th, 2017, 07:19 AM
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My only big error of our trip after my daughter's questioning was accidentally turning the wrong way and entering a line for people bringing plants and animals into the US. They would not let us turn back so after numerous people with roses and family pets, it was our turn and they were somewhat suspicious of our claim that we had mistakenly gotten in this line.and searched our bags extensively. After they deemed us safe, we had a nice long conversation about Cuba, where our questioners/searchers were both from. One lamented that he was not allowed to visit Cuba anymore as his father was no longer alive there.
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Apr 9th, 2017, 01:07 PM
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"we had a nice long conversation about Cuba, where our questioners/searchers were both from. One lamented that he was not allowed to visit Cuba anymore as his father was no longer alive there."

Allowed? I am reliably informed by a Cuban friend in the US that that is, at least currently, not the case (that it may date, according to my friend, from the time when Cubans were only allowed to go back once every 4 years on a family reunion basis) and that Cubans without relatives in Cuba can indeed visit. Perhaps your lamenter meant that he no longer had any incentive to go back.
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Apr 10th, 2017, 09:26 AM
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Did this long conversation happen while others were waiting?
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Apr 10th, 2017, 11:11 AM
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Why? Are you irate about being behind her in line?
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Apr 15th, 2017, 02:13 PM
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I thank you for writing and sharing with us. ...liked the tone of your report which had me wanting to revisit Cuba again. ...wasn't successful in completing my trip last month, for a health issue which would have impeded others and me kept me from doing this tour. By choice I aborted my 20 day P-P which would have allowed for much independence. ... plan to return in 2018 for 15 days then extend for five or more days traveling independently.

Again, thank you for posting. ...great read!

(I made a list of all of your restaurants. -
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Apr 24th, 2017, 10:53 AM
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I was born and raised in Cuba, but I will never go back as long as the government remains dictatorial. It hurts my heart to see how insensitive people are at Cubans lack of liberty. I accidentally came upon this trail when searching for info in other Caribbean islands and it made me very sad to realize that not one person cares to mention how the people live in fear under absolutely government control. How heartless to careless say that a trip to Cuba is a step back in time.....
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Apr 24th, 2017, 11:21 AM
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Olgavictoria - you are of course entitled to your PoV but I hope that you never go to Russia or China or any of the many other countries of the world that have dubious human rights records. And just because it's not been discussed on this thread doesn't mean that contributors here are not alive the to problem. Though SC and I have disagreed often, I can tell you that she is extremely aware of it and she is not alone. But in the end we all have to make a decision about whether it's better to go and see for oneself or to sit at home and feel angry.

Would the people of Cuba be better off without tourism? I doubt that those who are involved in the tourist industry would agree with you.
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Apr 24th, 2017, 11:28 AM
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I neither sit at home or feel angry..... Just expressed my opinion as you accurately mentioned I am entitled to. It makes me feel better to notice that at least you are not deaf to the cry behind "salsa and boleros".
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Apr 24th, 2017, 12:38 PM
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Of course we are aware and concerned about the terrible plight of people there. And learned a lot from the many people that we spoke with during our trip.
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Apr 24th, 2017, 01:11 PM
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"how insensitive people are at Cubans lack of liberty. ....it made me very sad to realize that not one person cares to mention how the people live in fear under absolutely government control. How heartless to careless say that a trip to Cuba is a step back in time....."

So how better to help Cubans on the island than to provide them with opportunities to become entrepreneurs and earn money as independent business people?
Show them how we support that with our money and our interest in their lives and culture. Show them real friendship between individuals, and between the citizens of our two countries, is possible, wonderful, and joyous, and can get better and closer in future.

(And is traveling there to spend tourist money really so different from all the overseas Cubans who regularly funnel money to relatives on the islands to help support them?)

The people who remained on the island make the best of their lives. They are an amazing example to the rest of us, one that we should see and get to know in person.
They appear quite happy in their day-to-day lives, and particularly those who deal with tourists in any capacity are thriving these days. Most seem to have come to terms with life under the present government (and speak little of politics for many reasons, including that many of the poorest lives were bettered), but look and think forward to even better conditions under which to thrive.
Many are in fact sitting in their living rooms watching Univision with its commercial for Lowe's and Macy's, with the cash but not the ability to buy. Many, like those in other countries, are dreaming of a vacation in the U.S. or sending their children to study English, and many I spoke to are now bringing this dream to fruition.

It makes me very sad to think that so many herencia Cubans prefer that their brothers and sisters on the island continue to suffer from shortages than to prosper with U.S. tourist dollars. That IMO is a truly heartless way to treat your sisters and brothers.
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Apr 24th, 2017, 01:55 PM
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Tactful as ever, SC. Actually I wonder if that's a little naive - the people that one meets as a tourist are by and large going to be those who are benefitting from the tourist dollar, not those who are scraping by on the very small salaries that the Gov pays which they are not in a position to supplement. That tourist $/£/€ is definitely skewing the economy; it's much more profitable to work in the tourist industry than it is to be a doctor or and engineer or a college lecturer which were the previous professions of people that we actually met in Cuba who freely shared with us the fact that they couldn't afford to work in the jobs for which they had trained, however much they wanted to. OTOH there is bound to be some sort of "trickle down" effect and the more contact with foreigners they have, the more likely it is that there will be a push for political and economic change.

<>

so far as we could see, SC, those with cash could buy - the casas where we stayed were well equipped with electrical goods, washing machines, huge TVs, etc. etc. Cars and car parts are hard to get hold of but even that seems to be changing - one taxi we travelled in would not have disgraced our local taxi rank.

OlgaVictoria - would it hurt to visit once to see what it's actually like now? I don't think that anyone would conclude that by doing so you were condoning the regime. And at the very least you would have up to date first hand evidence of the lives of your countrymen and women. You might even have some fun!
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Apr 24th, 2017, 05:25 PM
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Well that certainly demonstrates that you stayed in a different universe than I did.

Washing machines I saw were filled while a person stood there to turn the tap on and off as they filled, after which the clothes were put in another tub to spin out the water. When was the last time you saw one of those on a Lowe's commercial? But then agan, in the UK, you've never seen a Lowe's commercial have you? Of course, there are no dryers, and that becomes difficult in rainy seasons, I can tell you from experience, when things mold while hanging up to dry.
Did not see one flat screen TV of any size whatsoever in homes or for sale.
Refrigerators were old, small, often rusty, and certainly not 20+ cu ft French door, bottom freezer models. The small dorm size ones were ubiquitous for rented rooms though, and often stocked with cans of beer, water and soft drinks at a hefty convenience mark-up.
I saw rice cookers and a blender, no other small appliances like food processors, mixers, or anything else one could find by the dozens on any department store shelf or kitchen counter in the U.S. But maybe the average UK household doesn't have all that either?
Several standing fans were purchased on one day when they appeared in the stores, to be distributed later among several properties.

Any different and there is undoubtedly family bringing in things from the U.S. or foreign investment of some kind.

The modern taxis are sold by the government only to certain people, according to the doctor who informed us that was how he and his father acquired theirs.
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Apr 27th, 2017, 08:15 AM
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My comment was not intended to open up a debate on politics or on to visit/or not to visit Cuba. It was just an observation on how people that have their liberty and rights for granted are unable to see the suffering behind the "quite happy" smile. My mistake! I read great observations by annhig.
Believe me: if you don't hear the complaints, and people elude to talk about the government is not because they are "quite happy", it is because they live in fear of their neighbors and even their own family members who may work for "la seguridad del estado".
I know it is very hard to understand when you haven't lived the experience by yourself......
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Apr 27th, 2017, 08:45 AM
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Replying to SambaChula - would it hurt to visit once to see what it's actually like now?
My reply: I can't answer that unless I put myself in the hands of a government that incarcerated my father for 15 years, didn't allow us to leave for 10 years after we got the visas, expropriated me of my very humble possessions, made me sign a renounce to my Cuban citizenship when they finally allow us to leave and now doesn't let me in unless I travel with my Cuban passport after they grant permission that can be revoke at any time. Do I want to find out if there is harm in doing so? No! I have plenty of friends and family inside that keep me posted of what's actually like now.
Educate yourself and find out what percentage of Cubans the tourist dollars are helping, the reality is that young people now are not interested in being anything else but involved in tourism, which is in great percentage sex tourism involving even minors. Believe me......I will not have any fun, it hurts because it's a part of me. Don't you dare to call me heartless!!!!
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Apr 27th, 2017, 09:17 AM
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Sorry, but I see it differently (as someone who does NOT take their liberty and rights for granted, particularly currently as they seem to be getting eroded more every minute).
I understand that the folks who left their lives, life's work and possessions behind to flee, or had them taken by the state, still hold grudges, even though they have rebuilt their lives in the U.S over decades. Perhaps I would too in similar circumstances if I had been one of the Cuban "haves".
But the younger Cubans I know in the U.S. don't seem to hold the same grudges, seem to have moved on, are able to enjoy visits with relatives on the island, and are comfortable looking forward to buying vacation homes on the island or investing in casas particulares.
There seems no room in their image of the future for those who can only look backward with undying hatred.

I can only imagine the abysmal, slave-like conditions under which many Cubans lived before the revolution that made the prospect of food, a roof, health care and an excellent education for all look like an ideal to strive, fight and die for.

However, it is not human nature to suffer continuously, constantly. People come to terms with their situation (as we see on the TV news every day in conflict zones world wide).
So yes, people find happiness in their daily lives, and Cubans do not hesitate to say so. The Cubans a tourist runs into eat well, have possessions (cars, appliances, etc), are able to get good educations in their chosen field, go to the beach, and go out to dance and hear music. Most say they help relatives who are not yet positioned to take advantage of the new economic opportunities in Cuba. Some are traveling to the U.S. and Europe for recreation or private business (not government "missions").

No one "eluded" talking with me about the realities of the political situation in Cuba. I spoke to a lot of people, from the son of a revolutionary general to those on the fringes and those who protest the lack of certain freedoms. But they do not dwell on the negatives of the situation either. Some Cubans I spoke with though even made the point that "we (Cubans) had the good guy" in the revolution, vs. the leadership of the U.S. at the time, because of course, so many desperately poor, ill and illiterate Cubans had their lives significantly bettered.
History has taught that power corrupts, and Cuba may be no different in that, but the majority of Cubans I met are looking toward an even better and more prosperous future, one of sister/brotherhood with everyday folks from the U.S.
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Apr 27th, 2017, 01:33 PM
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Actually, Olgavictoria, it was me who suggested you should visit just once to see what it's like and now of course I realise how insensitive that was, and I apologise. I certainly would not suggest that by choosing not to go you are being heartless; far from it.

I hope that you can understand why we wanted to go - of course we were going for a holiday but we were also interested in finding out what we could about the political situation [which I appreciate is very little] and we did try to remember amongst all the sun and salsa that we seeing and talking to a very small cross section of society, and that even those who are profiting from tourism still have considerable limitations on their freedoms, despite their buying power. Not only is the fact that highly trained medics and engineers are driving taxis for example a tragedy for the country, but it is also demeaning for them, nevertheless they still have to put a brave face on it for the tourist. And as SC says, many people, especially those with access to tourists' money will be trying to make the best of their situation, and hoping for better times to come.

We didn't see anything that looked like sex tourism, but it would be naive to think that it doesn't happen; we did not go to the beaches of the north except for one day trip when our taxi driver [a doctor] had to be specially spoken for by the tourist guide as ordinary Cubans [without special passes] were not normally allowed into that area. I wonder now if that was something to do with that problem, or just a way of controlling the population.

Despite all the problems we loved Cuba and its people and I'm sorry Olgavictoria that the fate of your country is such a cause of sadness to you. Hopefully things will get better there, and get better soon.
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Apr 27th, 2017, 05:59 PM
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The US has many immigrant communities who have passed through great hardships (killing fields, ovens, political prisons, rickety boats, barely provisioned camps) and who choose to look forward rather than hold grudges, and who regularly return to enjoy their (respective) beloved motherland. It is an active choice. Fortunately, younger Cubans in the US do not cling to their parents' antiquated hatreds.

Insofar as Cuba, the ugly and the unfair were certainly limits to the freedom of the Cuban majority during the Batista regime, supported by the US and enriched by the US mafia, and Cuban regimes before that.
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