Cuba Then & Now

The trip to Cuba was amazing on so many levels.  I know many of you are very curious about our southern neighbor and I have a lot to tell you.

The country has changed dramatically since I was there 20 years ago. I hardly recognized it. That is all good. The people are wonderful and are happy to see Americans. Cubans are still very well educated (University is free), artistically talented, kind and gracious. Now a day, more people can have a limited amount of small businesses. Because of that, they look happier and healthier. Things are getting restored, very slowly, but at least it is going in the opposite direction. 

The average Cuban makes $39 a month. A doctor makes $69. Food rationing still exists. 20 years ago, it was 1 egg a month per person, now it’s 4 eggs a month. Rice and beans are also rationed. 70% of Cubans own their own home. If you don't, rent is $100 a month. Do the math. People live multi-generationally to survive or they try to have a small business on the side. Doctors often drive taxis at night. This sounds bad but it is so much better than 20 years ago. Now there are opportunities and the future is brighter especially when the US will lift the embargo. It feels very much like China in the 1990's and early 2000's. The government is easing up and allowing some small independent businesses.

Restaurants were fabulous. I felt like I was eating in San Francisco or New York. The food was great, fresh, sometimes organic and huge portions. 20 years ago Fidel Castro allowed people to have 2 kinds of private business; a paladar (restaurant in a home) and growing and selling fruits and vegetables in a farmer’s market. When you went to a paladar you literally sat at someone’s kitchen table and momma was cooking in the kitchen.  You got chicken and beans and rice. Now the menus are international, cooked by chefs with awards and in beautifully designed settings. We had everything from fresh lobster to steak. My favorite was always the Cuban food, which reminded me very much of my time in Puerto Rico.  There is a lot of similarities between Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisine.

Hotels are still a problem. There are some small boutique properties that looked lovely. I didn't see rooms. Our hotel had many plumbing and electrical problems. Some were fixed and some were not for the week that we were there. One has to anticipate and adjust to things like that. Many public restrooms do not have toilet seats. Remember it’s the US embargo that’s preventing supplies, like toilet seats to get to Cuba.

People are now allowed to rent rooms in their homes.  That is another new business that the government has permitted.  In the country-side you do see newly painted homes with signs saying room for rent.  I would caution you about renting such an accommodation.  I did hear of a couple who went to Cuba and rented rooms.  When one of them got sick, the place they rented had no water.  Everything can look pretty on a website.  If hotels in Havana can’t get things fixed quickly, what can you expect from a room, in a home, in the countryside? I’m sure there are many lovely places.  The problem is, how do you vet that before you go?

There are stores. Mostly with tourist items and for tourists. That said, we had to go to 2 stores to buy enough water for the bus one day. Changing dollars is easy but expensive. 20 years ago, you hardly saw a store, other than a pharmacy or a food rationing stand. If Cubans have money, they can buy some things. If there is a TV in a store, it’s at best a 3-year-old model.  It may be the only one, all the other TV’s in the store are much older. That is why you see Cubans from the US bringing TV’s and anything else they can get on the planes to their relatives.

I did see the Fathom sail into Havana. As I told our tour guide, that's the good and bad news. With just one ship in you could feel the crowding in Havana. I'm not sure they are ready to handle that much influx of tourists at one time. I hope the cruise industry will be kind and give the Cubans a chance to catch up. BTW, tour guides and tour buses are new.  All are government owned. Brand new tour buses from China; Yutong (I had never heard of this company before). Our tour guide was fabulous.  He spoke perfect English as well as French, Russian and some other languages. His degree was in linguistics. Many people speak English now, that wasn't the case before.

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The buildings are slowly being restored.  In 1993 I saw the movie Strawberry and Chocolate.  I love architecture and I saw the beautiful buildings in Havana crumbling in the movie.  I wanted to see them before they were gone. When I had the opportunity to go in 1996, I was there.  It was heartbreaking to see the buildings crumbling.  It was like smashing antiques; no supplies to maintain, repair or renovate.  Now slowly these old buildings are beginning to be restored. There are still some that have become piles of rubble.  Some have trees growing out of the roof. Many are now being lovingly restored. Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  We had a walking tour of Old Havana with an architect who part of the Heritage Restoration Project for Old Havana.

Cars and transportation have changed dramatically too in Havana. Today the old American cars are carefully restored. They are taxis and can be hired for a tour around Old Havana or along the Malecon (sea wall). I think taxis are also one of the new private businesses allowed. My driver proudly told me his car was restored with all original parts (perhaps not the air-conditioner or the memory stick in the radio). 20 years ago, most of the old cars were in poor shape.  Only a few were restored and displayed lined up in front of the Capital building. 20 years ago you saw everyone riding bicycles or driving old Russian Ladas. I hardly saw anyone riding a bike this time.  No bicycle repair shops.  Before there was one on every corner.

Public transportation in Havana has improved greatly. Previously dump trucks were used as buses.The truck would stop, the back would go down, a ladder was placed against the truck and people would climb up.  They stood around in the back of the truck till it was their stop.  There were some newer type buses.  However, they had no engine, they were pulled by the cab of a tractor trailer. You did see horse and carts. Today the only horse and cart you see are lovely carriages that tourists’ hire. For local's you see multi-share rides. Station wagons and SUV’s are jammed packed with people sharing a ride. Think how many college kids can you fit in a VW bug. That’s because the lines are long and the public buses are very crowded (now they are regular buses, not pulled by trucks).

Cigars and Rum are still the pride of Cuba. You can see a master cigar roller demonstration in Havana. Cigars are easily purchased. That hasn’t changed.  If you buy cigars, buy them in an authorized store.  Otherwise you will be buying the inferior quality which may not draw or taste as a Cuban should. Only a small amount of the production gets the top quality rating.  All the brands are still hand rolled except for a brand that sounds like Guantanomo (sorry I forgot the exact name). This brand is machine rolled and not valued by the Cubans. We visited a tobacco farmer in the countryside.  He rolled cigars for us. From the folks that know, it wasn’t the quality of the cigar roller from Havana.

Havana Club, the famous rum. Now there is a museum, store and bar in Old Havana. 20 years ago you had to go to Santiago to see the factory, which I did.  Now you go through a very lovely exhibition, starting with a movie, then a set-up of the old days of making rum.  You exit into the store to buy rum and accessories.  I came home with 4 glasses for Mojitos.  From there you can go to the bar, listen to a great band playing music, watch a Mojito making demonstration and have yet, another Mojito.

Tip from our tour guide - Even though Havana Club is the most widely known Cuban rum.  He prefers Santiago de Cuba rum.  I bought both kinds and I have to agree. I would also recommend buying the older aged rum. But if you just want it for Mojitos or Cuba Libres (rum and coke) buy the lesser ages.  White rum is used for Mojitos.  That said, we did have Mojitos in a restaurant that used dark rum and honey (instead of sugar). I liked that better as did most of the people on this trip.

As an American you can bring back up to $100 worth of cigars and rum; rum is cheap, cigars are expensive.  You can buy one cigar; you don’t have to buy a box. I brought back an assortment of different cigars and 4 bottles of rum (many were gifts and are gone, sorry if you thought you were coming over for Mojitos).

Music and Dance - Cubans are very talented musicians and dancers.  There were more clubs and opportunities then we had time for. The Tropicana, a tourist must, was so much more beautiful that before.  Amazing what some money can do for costumes, lighting and choreography. I would skip the Jazz Café.  Buena Vista Social Club has moved to a new location.  It now is like a Cuban version of a Hard Rock Café; lots of old Cuban memorabilia. Not the original guys, many have passed away.  The younger, new talent is still carrying on the tradition; much like Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans. I didn’t get to Casa de la Musica. Just another reason to go back.

We did see 2 very talented dance companies perform. One was a modern interpretive dance company that I think travels internationally, so professional. The other was traditional Afro Cuban style.  The ballet was not performing.  I missed that since the theater has been renovated and I would have like to have seen the remodel.

The countryside is not as advanced as Havana; it is less changed. It looks more like the Cuba I saw in Havana previously.  The old cars are not as spiffed up.  You still see the dump trucks being used as public transportation. Lots of carts being pulled by horses and oxen. Some homes in larger cities are being painted and fixed up.  Those are the ones renting rooms. We saw an incredible pharmacy museum in Matanzas.  The restoration of the old pharmacy, establish in 1853, was beautifully done. Matanzas is a busy industrial city with over 7 bridges. It is close to the Bay of Pigs and you still see propaganda billboards.

Varadero is Cuba’s most famous beach.  It doesn’t hold a candle to most other Caribbean beaches.  Cuba is not a beach only destination.  There are many more interesting reasons to visit this island.

Organic farming is alive and well in Cuba.  We visited a farm in Pinar del Rio. The farmer told us he moved his family to the country in the ‘90’s to plant vegetables to be able to feed them.  Remember food was very scarce then. He met an old farmer who taught him organic farming. Little by little his vegetable garden grew and now they have a beautiful farm with livestock.  They have a restaurant on the farm and serve farm to table, the best meal I had on the trip. It wasn’t vegetarian, we had fish, chicken, pork and beef; served family style.  More food and things to try than anyone could eat.

To see more of the island, you need more than 1 week.  My last trip was 2 weeks, I flew to Santiago and then traveled down to Baracoa, the tip of the island. If you have the time, it’s well worth it.

The future is bright for Cubans. The younger generation is more outspoken. Even though Wi-Fi is basically dial up and not readily available, they have a work around.  They buy a terabit of data that is maybe a week old and download it. Then they don’t need Wi-Fi.  We did see a bunch of people gathered in the street one night.  Our guide told us that was a “hot spot” for Wi- Fi. Our tour guide was showing me things on his phone from You Tube.

Young people want to travel, but that is difficult for them, especially to the US. Governments fear they will ask for asylum and not return. The flow of Americans, in addition to the Europeans, South Americans, Canadians, Asians and Australians, is straining the infrastructure and capabilities of the Cubans. If you travel be patient, don’t expect things to be like the US or other first world countries. The Cubans are learning and doing a fantastic job, but one must crawl before one walks. Enjoy the adventure, you can stay in a 5-star property other places in the world.

An interesting fear for the future, that our tour guide shared with me, is about drugs in Cuba.  Right now there is not a drug problem. The government is very strict about that. If a cartel drops a load of drugs off shore, a speed boat misses it, it floats to the shore, it will not be picked up. In Havana only tourists may be approached to buy a marijuana joint. No Cuban would sell to another Cuban for fear of being identified. Our guide’s fear is, as things open up, drugs could become a problem.  Cuba is strategically located between Mexico, Columbia and the US.  Drug cartels could see this as an opportunity.  He is afraid that gangs could arrive and Cuba could become a part of drug trafficking operations.  Let’s hope that isn’t part of Cuba’s “progress”.

Below are a few photos. I have over 700 pictures. I will start posting this week. I have to go through and pare things down. I will be posting on my We Make Travel Easy Facebook page. You can go there to see the photos (much less than 700, I promise). If you haven’t like my page, please do so while you are there.

The US government has requirements for you to travel to Cuba.  This was a People to People trip.  The regulations state what you must do and see to qualify. That makes it a very full and busy itinerary for 1 week.  However, I have learned that if you are a group of under 10 the regulations are much relaxed. I have access to beautiful villas for 8, with 24/7 service. I can arrange for private guides and you can have a very customized trip. If that is of interest, let me know.

If you are a diver, Cuba has some amazing and unspoiled dive sites. I’m working with a dive master in Florida to plan a diving trip to Cuba in 2017.  Best diving months are December to April.

If you are interested in traveling to Cuba, I can plan that for you.  

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