Cuba: Now Open for Tours

Cuba is a country I always knew of its existence, but with all of the restrictions on travel, it is one that I really didn’t know much about beyond what you learn in school.

It was the forbidden intrigue that led to the quick booking of the first Norwegian Cruise that offered a stop on its itinerary.

Without knowing if travel restrictions to Cuba would return, I wasn’t going to take any chances to not even get a taste of the country, and taking a cruise that provided the visas and gave options to fulfill one of the 12 accepted reasons for traveling there, I decided we should check it out, but with plans to return one day by plane for a longer amount of time.

It doesn’t matter where I travel to, the number of pictures I take and want to share of what attracted me, what surprised me, what amused me, and even at times what saddened me is more than most people would want to scroll through, but hopefully the few ones below provide the best insight of what I saw when recalling my impressions of Cuba.

Initial Impressions

First of all, I would not describe Cuba as stuck in time.

Within a few streets of walking around old Havana, while I could tell Cuba is a poor country, I could also see the people look healthy and what I could gather from those that I interacted with in shops, on the streets, and in restaurants that the positive aspects of the revolution such as universal education, an excellent healthcare system and a lack of disparity were evident.

Many people speak English very well, despite reading reviews online that the language barrier was difficult and I was pleasantly surprised that while you can tell tourism is bringing in money, I would hardly call the area “touristy” compared to other cities and countries I’ve experienced.  I actually was in amazement by the second day when I had only come across 1 single tourist shop that was hardly recognizable because even at my size, I was hardly able to walk into the sliver of a shop that I stumbled across.

Beyond that one shop, I did succumb to what you may call a tourist trap – but if it isn’t a sign to come across two adorable dachshunds’ within the first 15 minutes of being in the city, I don’t know what is!

I had to take my picture with these two and the gentleman who owned them asked for donations.

Restoration is in progress in many buildings, but most living areas are old.  The hustle and bustle both day and night can’t quite compare, but this was a city that never slept, with something and someone around all the time.

I learned about markets called Bodegas that are dedicated to selling only the “rations” food.

Cuban families get a “rations coupons book” that provides them a certain amount of food for the whole family for a month. Some families do have to buy extra food with what little money they have, and that ends up being the basics, which is what’s seen in most other semi-empty “regular” markets.

As I had researched, US credit and debit cards were not able to be used (although I came across other US tourists that said certain locations were accepting them, but I think that is very far and few between at this point) so I had to be smart with my money and ensuring that I had enough exchanged.

If you didn’t know, there are two different types of currency in Cuba – the CUP and the CUC.  

The CUP is the Cuban Peso and the CUC is the Cuban Convertible Peso, which is worth about 25 times more than the Cuban Peso and why its so important to not only exchange your money to the CUC, but to also ensure that when receiving change that you don’t receive back CUPs.

Before leaving on the trip I read a great tip – CUPs have faces and CUCs have monuments – go with the buildings!

The CUC has a 10% fee for exchanging from US dollars, but the rate was pretty close 1 to 1, making it easy to pay for things and also expose how very inexpensive everything was for a visitor.

I was blown away one night when we ventured out into a cute neighborhood in new Havana for dinner a restaurant filled with locals.  Two appetizers, four drinks, two main entrees, dessert and tip was roughly $40 USD – more to come on the deliciousness that was ordered!

Cigars were also inexpensive and rum was so cheap and something I would purchase more than one small bottle of and bring back since Havana Club rum is not available here in the US (definitely don’t mix it up with this version – totally not the same!  )

Another tip/information I had researched prior to going was all about the restrictions on technology and that it would be pretty difficult to get access to the internet while there.

I actually truly enjoyed being disconnected from all Internet for 5 days – I think the only thing I missed it for was being able to look up restaurant and bar hours, directions and ensuring that my taxi was following where I should be going on a map.

While driving around, I noticed that the beaches were empty and yes, the vintage cars are everywhere.

When I first saw a full row of about 30 of them parked I thought “am I at a classic car show back home?” 

Not too long after that I became so accustomed to seeing them in such a short amount of time because they are so plentiful!  They are used as taxis, as part of tours around the city and are many Cubans personal vehicles to get around.

According to our tour guide, Saul, (more on how awesome he is in a bit!)  that there is a difference between all of the license plates  – P for Privately Owned, T for Tourist renting a car, B for government owned, and the list goes on through the many different government owned reasons.

He gave the best tip that once we were out on our own that we’d want the taxis that had the B and not P, as they are registered taxis with the government and have been vetted.   Also, when you flag down a taxi, ask how much.

If it’s over what should be your estimated amount (we relied on Saul to help us with a few locations) and then we countered with that amount.

Having that knowledge, the driver instantly agreed.

Many people weren’t aware, but the reason for all of the classic cars is people could not buy new cars, but only transfer the ownership of cars obtained before the revolution.

But now, people can buy “modern” used cars, or if they’re financially well off, a new car.

You can always find music on or live and being played and sung beautifully.  I could only have wished for a few more nights to go out and take in what the city had to offer.

The People

  •  Friendly.
  • Warm.
  • Caring.
  • Happy.
  • Funny.
  • Educated.
  • Prideful.
  • Giving.

I wasn’t exactly sure how well Americans were going to be received in Cuba and I couldn’t have met so many people that welcomed us openly. 

The people I met were so friendly and so inviting that it seemed like everyone belonged and they made me feel that way as well.

As we drove around, I loved seeing how people went on with their daily lives on the streets, but also in the neighborhoods. Because most buildings don’t have fans or air conditioning, this means that many people are outside chatting and talking with each other while hoping for the next breeze to come through.

Everyone seems to be family and friends and I love the genuineness of everyone’s interactions with each other.

Even walking the streets with Saul, the day of the Champions Leagues Semi Final soccer match, he chimed into two stranger’s banter as we were walking by about who was the better team (Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid) and who would win that day.

The passerby’s gladly engaged him and included him in their conversation before we moved on to another street where everyone had a friendly goodbye.

Tours and Tour Guide

 If you’ve considered going or have researched traveling to Cuba, you’ve probably read about the 12 different reasons you can travel there from the US – everything ranging from educational trips, volunteerism (add in link to gov’t website).

While I have read that there has become some leniency (i.e. No one is really asking for proof of your activities once you head back home through customs) We still had to sign an affidavit that we must keep record for 5 years of the activities we participated in and which of the 12 categories it falls under.

Since we arrived and left Cuba via cruise, we had to provide this documentation to the cruise line, but once we turned it in we were never asked about it again.

To ensure that we met the people-to-people travel regulations, I ensured that we were signed up for at least one educational activity in advance and then wanted to play the remainder of the time by ear.

I’m a big advocate of trip excursions and tours – especially ones led by locals.  I’ve found that I learn just as much, if not more than I would in a guide book, but I learn more than what goes beyond the dates of buildings.

I’ve also experienced and understand the value of booking private tours – some of the best we have experienced were at The Great Wall of China, hiking the Inca Trail in Peru and Jeremy’s private fishing guide in New Zealand. 

While I do love meeting people on the road, I’ve started to save this for when I’m in restaurants, bars and during other free time so I can get the most out of my sightseeing and learning.

The one-on-one experience of having a local guide provides the flexibility to tailor a tour specifically to you and the ability to ask questions anytime and the freedom to deviate from the plan and make changes as the day goes.

I enjoy not feeling rushed to get back to a group at a designated time and I feel I get a deeper understanding and education of the culture, location and people from the time I have with these individuals. 

I’m giving a special shout out to our guide, Saul, because he made our time in Cuba so memorable and went so above and beyond what was asked of him.

First of all, Saul wasn’t even supposed to be our guide.

Since it was Norwegian’s first cruise (and we learned quickly that they were still figuring out procedures for traveling to Cuba, even while we were cruising there!), not everything was well known in advance for how procedures would go for getting off the boat, getting through customs, etc.

And while  all of our cruise documents and our cruise itinerary said we would dock at 8am in Havana and I scheduled a tour for 9am (more than enough time normally) we were informed late the night before arriving that we would be put into groups to get off the boat based on a ticket that you had to pickup the morning of and then we would start to disembark at 10am starting with group 1…

Well, even despite getting up early, we got group 3 and with no guarantee of any delays for getting off the boat, I had to take action to get my tour rescheduled.

(Going to throw out a shameless plug here- I wasn’t the only person this happened to, but being in the travel industry I’m accustomed to things not always going as planned, as much as I think the should!)

And it was stressful to see a lot of guests panicked about their tours and losing out on the experience.

Part of the piece of mind of working with a travel professional is I handle those things for you, letting you continue enjoying your trip while I handle the calls behind the scenes).

Ok, so getting back to what happened!

The morning of our tour I called the company to inquire about what options we had since we were clearly not going to be able to meet our guide at 9am.

Another perk of a private tour – I had greater hope that we’d have flexibility since a group wouldn’t be waiting for us and with that I asked about having our tour moved to a later time.

We learned later that Saul was on call for the day and typically only does longer tours (think 10-15 days for visitors, traveling the entire island).

But he took the call, met us at our new start time of 11am and from there he couldn’t have made our tour more personalized, laid back, and educational all at the same time.

As part of our private tour he took us to an amazing rooftop restaurant for a traditional Cuban lunch where we got some time to relax and chat.

Meeting and talking to people is one of my favorite things to do to get to know a place I’m visiting.

I like hearing their stories and their perspective on the place they live.

Jeremy and Saul both thought I was funny for the questions I was asking.

Everything from what do people do for fun when they aren’t working, what types of schooling are available to different age level kids, at what age do people get married, is the divorce level high, etc. etc.

Knowing that I wasn’t going to get a chance to become fully immersed in the short time we had there, this was a fun way to get a glimpse at what life was like for the Cuban people.  We had a lot of good laughs and the experience made it feel less like a tour and more like having lunch with an old friend.

But before and after that lunch, boy did we walk A TON. 

We saw so much and in a lot of heat and humidity, but we all powered through the day and he showed us so much more than we may have seen on our own.

Towards the end of the tour we knew the soccer tournament I mentioned earlier was almost over and we were all ready for drinks, so Saul raced around to find us a TV in a local hotel where we sat in the basement bar with other locals to cheer on Madrid Real.

While everyone was watching the screen, I was more fascinated by watching the faces, smiles, and cheers and how passionate everyone was about this sport. 

And while everyone wasn’t rooting for the same team, it was still a fun atmosphere and something that would have been a great experience for a whole afternoon.

After the game was over we had a few more drinks outside overlooking the ocean and chatted about other things to do that evening and the next day I showed Saul a few notes that I had on my phone and he saw that I had a cooking class on my list.

He and graciously offered us coordinate two open spots for the next day.

 

We didn’t have set plans for the next day and Saul made a lot of phone calls to set us up with a cooking class, but the additional gesture of not only setting up a private taxi to and from the cooking class, but also meeting us in the morning to ride a long with us, was so thoughtful.

I couldn’t highly recommend him more.

Not only was the cooking class amazing, but prior to the class we got to learn about the area of Cojimar and their tribute to Ernest Hemingway.

We also got to meet two brothers that garden as a hobby (it’s not their main job!) and provide spices, vegetables and herbs to local restaurants and hospitals for both food and medical purposes. 

They truly believe in providing to the community for the good of all of the people.  I loved learning about how they gardened without chemicals and about the different varieties of herbs and plants. They encouraged us to smell and taste everything as we walked around, so happy and thankful to have the opportunity to do and provide for others.

And…I would be lying if I didn’t mention that I spent some time with this little dude who lived there as well – so sweet and cute!

But let’s talk about the food from our class and while we were in the city…

The Food

  • Mojitos.
  • Cuban Coffee.
  • Cristal and Bucanero Fuerte.
  • Ropa Vieja.
  • Fish.
  • Rice.
  • Beans.
  • Plantains.
  • Boniatos!

I’m not sure if I even have the words to share how much I enjoyed sampling and tasting the flavors of Cuba and wish I could have been there for more meals!  It could not have worked out any better that we had the chance to participate in a cooking class at a local restaurant in Cojimar, called Café Ajiaco.

We got to meet the entire restaurant staff who welcomed us into their kitchen with our own personal apron and had us dive right into cooking! 

We learned how to make ropa vieja, deshell a lobster tail, flambé it all together and also learned about the ingredients to make Ajiaco soup (yes, the same as the name of the restaurant!)

The soup takes a long time to make, which is why it wasn’t part of our lesson, but in place of that, we also got a mojito lesson!

They have a secret ingredient for their mojitos, which I believe I now like even more than the traditional version – they use honey instead of sugar or simple syrup – talk about a game changer!  

After all the cooking and mojito making lessons, we got to enjoy the fruits of our labor and relaxed before receiving the special surprise of a certificate stating that we had become official chefs at Café Ajiaco.

What an amazing staff and people to connect with!

I’m truly inspired to try recreating some of these dishes at home and would highly recommend the cooking class, but also visiting this awesome restaurant to experience their food!

Why I Want to Go Back

 My impression of this beautiful country is from a few short days and I can’t even imagine what more there is to explore.

If you have even the slightest interest, I recommend heading to Cuba and of course you know I’d be thrilled to help plan or even go with you on a trip!

Have you been to Cuba? 

 What was your experience? 

If you haven’t yet, why not and what are you most interested in seeing?

 

Drop me a note below!