Discover a land frozen in time.
Cuba is rapidly becoming the new travel frontier for Americans. With the recent changes in travel regulations by the Obama administration, Americans can travel to the island nation easier than ever since the embargo was put in place over 50 years ago. On a recent visit to Havana, I was struck by how the country is truly a land frozen in time.
This capital city, founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, seems to have been left behind in the 1950s. Havana is primarily made up of three main areas: Centro Habana, La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Vedado, a more modern central business district built in the early part of the 20th century. For shopping in Havana, you’ll want to visit Calle Ospido in Vieja Habana. A long, narrow promenade, Calle Ospido is bordered with restaurants, shops, antiques and Cuban art where many locals gather in the evening to stroll and mingle with friends over ice cream. Don’t expect to find Louis Vuitton, Prada, or other designer stores. Scarcity of most goods is widespread and luxury items are all but nonexistent.
Aside from the beautiful architecture of the deteriorating buildings, Cuban jazz, the cigars and rum, Havana is famous for its 1950s era American cars. The brightly colored Chevys, Fords, and Cadillacs traverse the streets in such large numbers that standing on a street corner, I had the distinct feeling of watching an old Technicolor Hollywood film from that period. These classics are kept alive through a sort of Cuban mechanical ingenuity where recycling and re-use take on a whole new level. We rode in a 52’ Oldsmobile taxi, in remarkably good condition, which was powered by a late model Hyundai diesel motor.
For hotel accommodations, we chose the Hotel Mercure Sevilla Havane, which we found online through TripAdvisor. Centrally located near shopping, La Habana Vieja and the Malecon seawall, this historic hotel was built in 1908 and served as a favorite haunt of American mobsters for decades. For $110 per night, we found our room to be clean and secure with air conditioning, a safe and a nice view. When choosing your hotel, be aware that generally a 5-star hotel in Cuba equates closer to a 3-star hotel in the U.S. There are very few luxury hotels by U.S. standards in Havana.
As for safety, crime, and especially violent crime, are rare in Havana (it is a police state, after all). Overall we never felt unsafe anywhere at any time. Most hotels have ample security as well as doctors on premises who are available 24 hours.
As of this writing, American credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba. Plan to carry ample cash which you will need to convert to Cuban Convertible Pesos upon your arrival at the airport in Havana. Internet access is extremely limited if you can find it and there is no WiFi. Also, your American cell phone is as useless as your credit cards but we actually enjoyed the opportunity to unplug, disconnect and go analog for a few days.
Getting there: Currently, there are no non-charter direct flights to Cuba, however, direct service from most major US cities should be in place by the end of 2015. We travelled to Cancun then took the 45 minute flight to Havana on Air Cubana which we booked in advance. It is important to understand that the embargo is still in effect and until policy changes are made, Americans may travel only under 12 specific categories, all of which are designed to promote people-to-people exchanges: 1. Family visits. 2. Official government business. 3. Journalism. 4. Professional research and meetings. 5. Educational activities. 6. Religious activities. 7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions and athletic competitions. 8. “Support for the Cuban people.” 9. Humanitarian projects. 10. Activities of private foundations or research for educational institutes. 11. Exporting or importing information or “information materials.” 12. Travel related to some authorized export transactions. Under the old rules, Americans planning to travel to Cuba were required to obtain a travel permit under one of these 12 criteria from a travel agency authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department. This is no longer necessary and travelers are now on a kind of “honor system” that they are indeed travelling within the guidelines. There appears to be little oversight by the government on this which leaves US travelers basically free to go as they please, however, it is advised to keep a journal or something that documents the category of your visit. According to the Treasury Department website, they can ask to see this for up to five years after you return from Cuba but it’s unlikely an agent of the Treasury department is going to ask you about that tan you got while lounging on a Cuban beach.
Some tips for travelling to Cuba: • Pack like you are going for a week in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Items we take for granted as easy to find anywhere in the U.S. such as over-the-counter remedies, personal hygiene items, batteries, memory cards, etc., are scarce or impossible to find in Cuba. • Carry small items to hand out to people you will meet in Cuba. We took cigarette lighters, reading glasses, and baseballs. • Except for our hotel, most restrooms we found were pretty filthy and nearly all had little or no toilet paper. Stuff a roll in your backpack or purse along with some hand sanitizer. You’ll be glad you did.
Change is coming to Cuba. Big change, and with it will come a new kind of revolution for the once isolated island nation. No one knows what these changes will bring but one thing is for sure: America is coming to Cuba and it will never be the same. Go see it now, before Starbucks and McDonalds and Wal-Mart get there. You’ll be glad you did.