Cuba is a timeless place in more ways than one. Time has basically stood still for fifty years, and there is little anyone can do about it except Castro – and I’m not talking about Fidel, I’m talking about his brother Raúl. Since Fidel took the reigns fifty years ago, the “Revolution” still lives on in Cuba in the form of propaganda strewn across the country roadside and city walls. Aged cars are pieced back together, people live on pennies, and tourists stay in small B&B-like homes, but Cuba remains largely untouched by capitalism.
Something really special is brewing across the Straits of Florida: CHANGE – maybe not in Obama’s form of the word, but change is upon Cuba in the coming years, and if you can (if you’re allowed to travel there) you really should journey through the time machine to Castro country while you can and see a nation unlike any other you will ever see and may never see again.
Obama may have lifted travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, but that doesn’t means it’s yet easy – or legal – to get to Cuba. Nearly all citizens, the majority of which are from Canada, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain, can get in upon arrival and out quite easily. Because of the existing trade embargo, American tourists are technically not able travel to Cuba unless they get prior permission the the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Visas are granted to all visitors upon arrival. No matter your citizenship, Cuban customs agents stamp the arrival/departure card instead of the passport when you arrive and your boarding pass when you depart. There is no evidence on your passport for anyone that you have traveled to Cuba.
The most frequent airline carriers traveling to Cuba are Air Canada, Cubana, AeroCaribbean, and Mexicana. Therefore, best departure points are in Canada, Central America, and Mexico. Round trip airfare should cost no more than $500. There are some very good travel package deals available through certain travel agencies that include roundtrip airfare and 7-14 nights in a 4- or 5- star hotel/resort for just $150-300 more.
When to go:
The devastating Hurricanes Gustav, Ike, and (to a lesser degree) Paloma indicate that the rainy season between August and October are not ideal month to travel to Cuba. However, I would strongly encourage all interested in seeing Cuba to go now – whenever that may be – because Cuba will likely change significantly socially, politically, and economically soon.
Where to stay:
Tourists basically have three choices when it comes to accommodation in Cuba: luxury resorts, mediocre hotels offered through Islazul, and B&B-like “casas particulares.”
Vacationers and business travelers prefer high-end hotels such as the Spanish-owned Sol Melia hotel chain. Expect to pay upwards of $200 per night.
Middle-of-the-road hotels are listed on Cuba’s Islazul website. Some are finer than others, which can be real decrepit places. Expect to pay between $40-100 per night.
Independent and budget travelers who don’t travel in packs (larger than four) can stay in a casa particular. These are private homes hosted by Cuban families who pay a hefty tax house foreigners in two rooms maximum. There are two online networks that list hundreds of casas in every part of Cuba: CasaParticularCuba.org and CasaParticular.info. Expect to pay between $20-40 per night.
Where to eat:
Similar to the hotel situation in Cuba, dining in Cuba is best experience by word of mouth. There are plenty of high-end restaurants that, in Havana can cost up to $40-50 a meal.
Ask around for the best “paladar” in town, and you will go on a little treasure hunt through residential neighborhoods to find a small “restaurant” inside a home or apartment. Owners of these paladares pay a hefty tax (notice a trend here?) to serve a maximum of 12 diners at a time. The best known paladar in Havana, La Guarida, was featured in the Cuban film “Fresa y Chocolate” and, like most paladares, offers a really authentic atmosphere for dining on the third floor of an apartment in central Havana.
Cuban cuisine is much like other parts of Central America. Most meals come with a side of salad, rice (the “gallo pinto” one speckled with beans is called “Morros y Cristianos” – “Moors and Christians!”) or plantains, and a main dish of meat or seafood.
Where to go:
… stay tuned to my future Cuba Libre posts to read about Havana, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa, and Varadero!
For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE.