Having travelled to 105 countries and all 7 continents, my bucket list has certainly gotten short. When the opportunity arose to go to Cuba with Yalla Tours, I jumped at it … a new destination for me and an unknown for American tourists until now! There is a great deal of misinformation about Americans travelling to Cuba. The major misconception … while the U.S. and Cuba have re-established diplomatic relations and re-opened reciprocal embassies in Washington and Havana, travelling freely in Cuba is still not the case. Only Congress can pass laws revoking the embargo on goods and services (including tourism) that currently exists. American citizens can only travel to Cuba (from the U.S) through cultural, humanitarian, or people-to-people travel. And this is how we were able to go to Cuba — a humanitarian visit under the auspices of Yalla Tours. Humanitarian, yes! One of the instructions that came from Yalla asked that we bring donations of medicine, toothbrushes, diapers, Depends etc. as these are in very short supply in Cuba.
Saturday, October 17: We had a 1:20 PM charter flight from Tampa to Havana, but were told to be at the check in counter no later than 10:00 AM. The check in experience itself was an adventure. Most passengers on our flight were Cuban Americans, showing up at the counter with 60” TVs, furniture, automobile and bicycle tires — all wrapped in bubble wrap. You name it, they had it and were bringing it on the plane with them to be put in cargo. As for the Americans, the rules were different. The total weight allowed was 44 lbs. including carry-ons. They also charged $20 per suitcase and weighed the carry-ons to add to the total. There were 4 separate lines … one to check in luggage, one to pay for the luggage, one to check your visa (which we received with our documents from Yalla), and another to check in for seat assignments. It looked rather chaotic when we arrived (mostly because of those 60” TVs), but the lines moved quickly and it took us about 45 minutes to go from beginning to end.
The flight was fine (only 1¼ hrs.) Once we arrived in Havana, we were in for culture shock. Deplaning was not on a jetway, but a stairway down to the tarmac. Inside the terminal we had to put our hand luggage through security x-ray machines, then line up single file to go through immigration, unlike in the U.S., where families go through together. The immigration officer carefully checked our passports and put a stub of the visas in our passports. We were told to safeguard the visa, which would be turned in upon departing Cuba.
Irene was asked if she had been to Africa. Not understanding the reason for the question and knowing that we had been to Africa several years ago, she answered yes. Next, the inspector asked if she had been to Nigeria. Then Irene realized he was asking if she had been in any country in the last 30 days where ebola was rampant. After going through immigration, an electronic buzzer opened the door to the immigration booth and allowed us to enter the main luggage area where we were met with utter chaos! Now, all the 60” TVs, furniture, luggage, tires, bicycles, etc. came out to be collected by the Cuban Americans. It seemed as though their luggage came out first. After a long wait, our luggage showed up. We collected our luggage, turned in our custom form and left the terminal at last!
We were met by our guide, Laura, who pointed us in the direction of the bus that took us to our hotel. After a 20-minute ride, we arrived at our hotel in the fashionable residential area of Miriamar, which still retains its pre-revolutionary air of exclusivity. The beautiful houses are now used mostly for embassies. The Melia Habana is large, good looking, 4-star, situated on the Atlantic Ocean, and about 15-minutes from the center of Havana’s tourist sites. It was completely sold out. While we might have preferred to be in the center of Havana, we were told that there were often electrical outages and water issues in the city center. In any event, we were pleased with the food and service at the Melia Habana. There was a beautiful, large pool. We were tired after our long day of travel and decided to have a pizza and pasta dinner right at our hotel. Not bad at all!
Sunday, October 18. The eight of us boarded the bus for a 2-hour drive out to Pinar Del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province. This is Cuba’s primary tobacco growing region, and we were supposed to go to a farm there. However, the rain and mud prevented us from the visit.
We had a rest stop overlooking the Vinales Valley with spectacular views of the limestone hills and farms dotting the landscape. After this we had an unexpectedly interesting visit to the Cueva Del Indio (Indian Cave) and its subterranean river … large cave with stunning limestone stalagmites and stalactites. We rode through the cave on a small motorboat … quite beautiful. We lunched at a family owned farm, organic food served family style with course after course of rice, beans, fish, pork, chicken and more. We drove by a huge colorful mural on a mountain before driving back to Havana. Dinner this night was with our friends Ken and Barb Jonker at the Palador La Contana. Paladors are privately run restaurants, usually within a family’s home. La Contana was quite beautiful. The food was great and they had good music. The waiters and waitresses really got into it and put on an energetic dance show.
Monday, October 19. It rained on and off all day. We drove from Havana to Matanzas to visit San Severino Castle, where the Museum of Slavery is located. The museum was closed for restoration. Instead we visited the Museum of Pharmacology, which was just OK. Our next stop was a visit to a street that had “street art”. I took a few minutes to go exploring, looking in the window of a sheet metal factory. One of the workers looked out at me and invited me into the factory. Juan was very smart and spoke excellent English. He gave me his name and address and asked me to try to get him into the U.S. Next was a drive to the well-known beach resort, Veradero. We had a satisfying lunch at the beautiful Dupont Estate. Irene did not miss the opportunity to take off her shoes and socks and go wading.
Tuesday, October 20. This morning we visited the home and workshop of a member of the La Cubano Car Club. Their members are famed for driving and beautifully maintaining classic American cars. When we were there, they were repairing a vintage 1959 Chrysler 300, pink convertible. Throughout the trip I kept looking for my first car, a 1956 Dodge Custom Royal. I never saw one, although the member of the car club said that there were many in Havana. He invited our group to his home for coffee which he uses as a B&B for $35 a night including breakfast.
We visited the Museum of Decorative Arts, housed in the magnificent former Neo Classical residence of Maria Luisa Gomez Mena (a countess). Filled with beautiful arts, ceramics, furniture, paintings and Chinese art, it is a glance back to what Havana was like in the 50s. The courtyard and gardens were beautiful. You could imagine being in France. We lunched in another Palador — El Divino and enjoyed a good meal.
After lunch we visited the Old Havana Slave Museum, then stopped at the famous National Hotel in Old Havana. This was the most famous Cuban hotel in its time, owned by the U.S. Mafia, including Lucky Luciano and Myer Lansky. They have a famous 1930s Hall of Fame bar filled with photos of past guests, including Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, ballplayers, movie stars and more. It is a beautiful setting right on the waterfront. They also display the canons and guns that were there in preparation for a U.S. invasion during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. We returned to our hotel and met friends in the lobby for a late snack dinner accompanied by fabulous music and entertainment. Music was one of the highlights of our visit. It was everywhere. During breakfast we enjoyed a singing group. Street musicians and Latin music was everywhere and there was music in the hotel lobby every evening.
Wednesday, October 21. At last, a sunny day. We were joined by four other Ensemble members to visit to the Centro Hebreo Sefardi Synagogue where we were greeted by Dr. Levy, the head of the Jewish community. He spoke about the congregation, their programs, and challenges. We gave donations brought from home and went on to visit the small but stirring Holocaust Remembrance Hall.
We took a walking tour around the historic center of old Havana — a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was very interesting to see how decrepit some buildings were right next to those that were restored. The plazas were quite beautiful, similar to those in other Latin American and South American cities. The Convento de San Francisco de Asis, the largest cathedral in Havana is breathtaking. The Plaza Vieja has been completely restored and the buildings are quite imposing.
We visited the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway stayed. We enjoyed a good lunch in Old Havana at the Café Oriente followed by a most interesting lecture by Dr. Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat who serves today as the Coordinator of International Strategic Studies. He presented an overview of U.S. Cuban relations. It was quite informative but the bottom line is that until the U.S. embargo is lifted, major tourism, including cruise ship visits will not occur.
We returned to the Melia Habana Hotel to get ready for dinner and we were in for quite a treat. We were transferred to the restaurant in vintage American cars. Ours was a turquoise 1957 Chevy. The car owner added AC and power steering and it ran on diesel fuel. It brought back many fun memories. Dinner was held in the Rio Mar, one of the best privately run home restaurants. It was a beautiful setting on a terrace overlooking the water with amazing views of the Mirimar neighborhood. We had lots of food, including lobster … and the day wasn’t finished. We were off to the Bueno Vista Social Club for a show of fabulous Cuban singing and dancing. Of course, Irene joined the show! The music was great! It was the end of a truly wonderful day.
Thursday, October 22. We started the day with a visit to Convento de Belen, a renowned community center and social services facility. This ambitious project serves Havana’s poorest neighborhoods with special focus on the elderly and disabled children. We were quite impressed with the services offered. We met some of the elderly residents and the children too, well-dressed and smiling. Many were playing dominos, as they were at the Jewish Center. Members of our group left donations they had brought from home. We met an elderly man outside wearing a yarmulkah and a Jewish star. We had a nice talk with him and gave him a donation, which he thanked us for.
We visited a cigar factory, but we were not allowed to take pictures. There were rows upon rows of workers, both men and women, who had a quota of rolling 150 cigars per day. If you rolled more, you received a bonus.
We visited the Havana Club Museum of Rum. We toured the facility and learned about the rum-making process … from the freshly cut stalks of sugar cane, to the distillery process, to the transportation of the rum by railroad. We had some free time for to walk the Prado, which reminded me of the Ramblas in Barcelona — a pedestrian mall with buildings on both sides of the street, many beautifully restored, but also many very run down and in disrepair. After that we walked to the El Floridita Bar, frequented by Ernest Hemingway. They still have a replica of Hemingway sitting on a bar stool that was reserved for him. The bar was really hopping with great music from a Cuban band! It was quite exciting!
We had an excellent tour with a fabulous at the Museum of Fine Arts. We also stopped briefly at the Revolutionary Museum. Here we saw the guns and planes used by the Cubans in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. We drove to the Revolutionary Square, a huge plaza where Fidel Castro spoke to the crowds.
Friday, October 23. Our day started with a stop at the American Embassy. We noticed a long line of Cubans (600-700) waiting for their interview to be allowed to entry to the U.S. Apparently, these lines are a daily occurrence.
From here we drove to the Christopher Columbus Cemetery. One of the largest cemeteries in the world, it reminded us of the cemetery in Buena’s Aries with its ornate mausoleums. We then drove out to the lovely Finca Vigia — Ernest Hemingway’s home outside of Havana. He bought the house in 1939 and it was opened as a museum in 1964. He had a guest house for visitors, including American movie stars like Ava Gardner. The residence and tower where he wrote were beautifully restored. The gardens and pool area were well kept. It also houses his famous fishing boat. He had a small gravesite for his dogs.
Our visit was followed by a drive to the picturesque village of Cojimar which inspired Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea. Lunch was at a nearby parador and then we were back to Havana for a short visit to the fort at the entrance to Havana Bay, the largest fortress in the Americas. It became a military base and prison and was used by Che Guevara as his headquarters during the Cuban revolution. We heard an interesting lecture about the economic opportunities and challenges for Cuba going forward.
Our farewell dinner was held at the Rejoneo Paladar where we were joined by Ronen Paldi, the owner of Yalla Tours. It was a special evening.
Saturday, October 24. We were transferred to the airport in Havana early in the morning for our charter flight back to Tampa. Uneventful check in and flight. The good news was that there were no luggage charges on the flight back to the US.
Final Thoughts. In my opinion, a visit to Cuba should be a must. The time to go would be before the trade embargo is lifted … after that, there will be a Marriott and a Starbucks on every corner. I don’t think the embargo will be lifted soon, since it remains a hot potato in political terms, especially with the 2016 presidential election in the near future. That being said, there are Alice Travel deals with a number of tour companies who offer great trips to Cuba right now. My trip was done through Yalla, and they did a great job. They can arrange a 3-4 day Havana tour, a one-week Havana tour, and longer trips that include the whole island as well as Trinidad, the beach resorts, Santiago de Cuba and more. Another excellent choice would be Alexander & Roberts. For a more deluxe trip, I would never hesitate to recommend Tauck. The agents at Alice Travel can arrange your once in a lifetime trip to Cuba. Why not give us a call at 888-232-6941 now.