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Destination Cuba!

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Cuba’s the Hottest Destination to Visit Right Now

By Kay L Trotman

Havana, Cuba

La Habana, Cuba, September 2005. Photo by Vgenecr from nl / CC BY-SA 3.0

Cuba!! Why does everyone want to go to Cuba these days? I think it’s the mystique of a country that has been ‘bad’ and ‘forbidden’ and ‘communist’ for many years. Now, it’s the fastest and hottest destination, of all the travel destinations. For my group, it took about two years to find a trip, and clear the waiting list.

cuban architecture

The fact is, there are only a limited number of tour companies that are licensed to operate in Cuba, even though the restrictions have been eased a bit. You still can’t just book a trip to Cuba on your own, not from the USA. Sure, there are many countries where you’re allowed to travel to Cuba directly, but USA is not one of them – not yet! Cuba is still a sanctioned country.

I traveled with Collette Vacations, a well-known tour company in the industry and a favorite of many travel agents. The eight in my small group was part of the larger group of 33. We had a wonderful local Cuban guide who was candid, honest with us about life in Cuba. We loved him. He was humorous, accommodating and extremely knowledgeable.

colorful cuban buildings

Things don’t always go as planned, but for every Plan A that didn’t materialize, plan B or C and sometimes D worked wonders. We also had a tour manager with Collette who also traveled with us the entire journey. OMG, the stories she could tell! We had an adventurous time with her, and she was incredibly resourceful, in a country that doesn’t always follow its own rules, and often with people who have a ‘manana-manana’ attitude.

Under the People to People program, which is how most tour companies operate their trips, there are strict and regimented programs which you must comply with. Most of us will think that the reason for this is that Cuba requires it, but the real reason, is in fact, at the directive of the USA. They require certain formats and limit the amount of free time you might have to wander around on your own in Cuba. They also require that you keep a journal for five years, detailing the activities on the trip.

visit cubaTour companies are mandated to follow the guidelines, or risk losing their license. And it is also the USA that dictates the amount of goods that you can bring back to the USA. Cuba would love for you to purchase hundreds of the most famous cigar in the world – the Cohiba, but unfortunately, you can only purchase no more than $100 combined in cigars and liquor. Cuba does not accept the USD, so all for the most part, Americans will take Euros or exchange USD for CUC’s (Cuban Convertible Peso), as most of us did.

However, even with the restrictions imposed, we were able to interact with the local Cubans. Not one of them identified themselves as Communist, and not one of them wanted to be associated with Communism. I don’t really know if or in whose eyesight, whether Cuba is considered a Communist country, but I can tell you from my brief experience, it is not. It is very much socialized, (not in a bad way) with free healthcare, free education and much, much more.

Things I Learned While in Cuba

  • Cuba claims a 99.8% literacy rate thanks to the campaign of 1961 to teach Cubans to read and write , one of the highest literacy rates in the world

  • Rationing, due to the embargo, called the blockade by Cuba, is still in effect

  • tourist destination cuba

  • Toiletries, Soaps and Lotions, are not available, except in hotels and most people beg for them. Many have the money, but the items are not available.

  • Private enterprises are slowly coming into Cuba, about 30% now, up from 0.2% just a few years ago

  • Most neighborhoods have doctors who reside there, and they are the ones who take care of the people in that particular neighborhoods, ranking them as the highest doctor patient ratio in the world.

  • The island of Cuba is shaped like a crocodile

  • Teenagers know and like American singers, among their favorites are Adele, and Bruno Mars

  • Salsa was born in the USA (New York City), not Cuba.

  • Rehabilitation, Nursing Homes are all free in Cuba

  • Cubans do not pay taxes unless they work for a private enterprise

  • Sierra Maestra

    View of Sierra Maestra and Parque Nacional Turquino — from the trail to Pico Turquino in the range and park, in southeastern Cuba. Located in Guamá Municipality of Santiago de Cuba Province. Photo by Óðinn / CC BY-SA 2.5 ca

  • Mariela Castro is overwhelmingly favored as the next Presidential hopeful. Raul Castro has announced he will step down at the next election, two years from now. With a last name of Castro, there is much conversation whether she would be an acceptable candidate from other world powers, even though she has been instrumental in gay rights in Cuba, equal rights, salary inequities, and human rights issues.

  • There is speculation both that Castro is deceased, and that Castro is still alive. No one knows for sure.

  • Ernest Hemingway was a prominent figure in Cuban history and culture

  • José Martí was an important Cuban national hero and there is a holiday celebrated in January

  • The language of the fan dance which was rather funny, in how a simple fan can mean many things in the language of the dance.

  • The religion of the slaves that is now front and center of Cuba, Santeria.

These are just a few of the things we learned.

cuban cigars

These are some of the places we visited

In each of these places, we had an opportunity to interact with both the students, teachers, nursing attendants, patients, dance instructors, dancers, artists and art instructors among others:

  • Che Guevarra Museum where we learned about the revolution of 1959, his role in Cuban history.

  • We learned more about the Cold War, Bay of Pigs and how Eisenhower, along with the CIA planned Castro’s overthrow, Cuban Missile crisis, Cuban and US Relations, the overthrow of Batista, (an ally of the US), how it led to the embargo, and how Cuba lost 85% of it’s economy overnight, as a result.

    All of this led Castro to Russia, one of their few remaining allies, and of course, at that time a Communist country. The effects of all of this political strife are evident, with over 60 years of decay to the beautiful buildings seen throughout Cuba and no way to repair them, unless there are foreign investors,

  • Los Abuelos de Fiesta, the ‘grandparent’s party’, where the senior citizens taught us dancing lessons

  • Museo de la Sucre, the Sugar Museum, where we learned about the sugar cane production

  • We rode a steam train and learned about their importance at one time

  • We visited a cigar factory and learned how the Cohiba was made, by hand, that they produce 20,000 cigars per day. They are imported to other countries outside the USA and those with whom Cuba has political relations with

  • We visited the local botanical gardens and experienced the beauty of the floral world in Cuba

 
cuban dolls

These are just a few of the activities and sights during our visit

I don’t claim to be a historian or to be politically savvy, or know the details of the political climate of different countries, but I do have basic knowledge of what might affect travel visits. Here’s what I found to be true in Cuba – Cubans are very proud of their Cuban culture, despite the terrible practice of rationing, despite the fact that many felt betrayed by the US in more distant times.

They love Americans, and they are willing to share their life, their stories and their struggles with a group of Americans they hardly know, but consider to be friends. They opened their doors, their hearts and their souls, and we always felt welcomed and safe.

Most likely Cuba will change over the years to come, especially if this blockade is lifted, and what I saw in February 2016 will not be the same as what I might see in the future, or what I might pay to see it. If you want to see Cuba as it is today, now would be the time to go. Starting later this year, I understand the cruise ships will start making overnight visits and for sure hotels will be popping up soon. Right now, there is more demand for rooms than Cuba is able to supply, that is at hotels where you would want to stay. Cuba was a wonderful experience.

cuban beach

References:

Here’s a synopsis of the explanation for the blockade:

After Cuba nationalized American-owned Cuban oil refineries without compensation. Cuba nationalized the refineries following Eisenhower‘s decision to cancel 700,000 tons of sugar imports from Cuba to the U.S. and refused to export oil to the island, leaving it reliant on Russian crude oil.

All American oil companies refused to refine Russian oil, leading the Cuban government to nationalize the refineries. In 1999, President Bill Clinton expanded the trade embargo by also disallowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba. In 2000, Clinton authorized the sale of “humanitarian” U.S. products to Cuba.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have also been critical of the embargo. Critics of the embargo say that the embargo laws are too harsh, citing the fact that violations can result in 10 years in prison.

You can read more here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_embargo_against_Cuba

Has anyone out there also had a recent Cuba experience?

Copyright © Kay L Trotman

5 Comments

  1. Shelli on February 6, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    How fun! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. Millie on February 7, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    Great blog, Kay. As one of Kay clients on this trip, I also had an amazing g people to people experience. Cubans may not have a lot compared to most western countries but they are very happy and willing to share what they do have. And they much appreciate the small bottles of lotion, shampoo, etc. that we could give out.

  3. Eydie on February 10, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Lovely account of your visit to Cuba, Kay. I’m sure it was the trip of a lifetime. I have a couple of questions.

    1. If the locals can’t get toiletries, how do they practice personal hygiene?

    2. In some of your Facebook status updates you shared photos of some pretty amazing, brightly colored vintage cars. Do all the citizens drive these beauties – or are they for the rich only?

    Eydie 🙂

  4. Mike Botula on February 12, 2016 at 11:55 am

    Great article, Kay! There’s no better perspective than that of an eyewitness account by a good friend.

  5. Sandy on February 16, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Wonderful blog! I also traveled with Kay and shared this amazing experience. The vendors and other people we met were very excited to see Americans. One even said, ” We are friends now!” Also an example of a privately owned business allowed are family owned restaurants called “Paladars. “

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