Are You Really Ready For Cuba?

With the recent ease in travel restrictions from the U.S. to Cuba, there has been so much chatter and buzz about how folks just “have to get there to see it in it’s buff”, or just “have to see it before the Americans take it over”. Literally, every other time I mention that I’m going to, or coming back from, Cuba, I get a response similar to the above mentioned remarks.  But, is that REALLY what we Americans want?  To see Cuba “in it’s buff”? Do we really want to experience Cuba before it is “Americanized”?  Can we really handle that?  You’d be surprised by the true answer, I think.

The idea of traveling to a place that for the past 50 years, or so, was “forbidden” to U.S. citizens seems exciting. Adventurous. Brave. Cool.  It proves that you are a world traveler.  That you don’t need to be surrounded by all of the creature comforts of home.  That you’re not sheltered. Right? Well, based on my experiences over the past year with taking groups to Cuba to participate in People-to-People exchanges (1 of the 12 categories that allow U.S. citizens to legally travel there), not everyone is REALLY ready to see Cuba “in it’s buff”, or before it is “Americanized”.  Not everyone is the experienced traveler who is ready to be exposed to ALL parts of the globe. And, guess what? That’s okay.What is not so okay to me is that folks leave the comforts of the U.S. talking on and on about how they are ready to go full-force into the experience of this once “forbidden” country, and nearly spasm out the moment they realize that, say, the air conditioning in the room is not has forceful as it is in their State-side home. Or, that the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet is not the likes of their IHOP breakfast. Or that Cuba’s national dish doesn’t taste the way they want it to taste. I’m serious.  I can’t make this stuff up!

I admit, to some, to many, the first visit to Cuba can be daunting. The country may appear to be still in the 50’s, but it’s slowly making progress.  So, sure, it takes some a minute to adjust, and move on with their visit.  But, some visitors do not seem to make the adjustment, and unfortunately, they spend their entire visit to the place they couldn’t wait to experience in “its true form” complaining, retreating, and missing out on the moments.What a pity.

Cuba is not for everyone.  It simply is not!  Not everyone finds it easy to maneuver through the underdeveloped roads to the underdeveloped towns, differentiating between the two types of Cuban currencies, eating the staple beans, rice and meat, while occasionally swatting flies or accidentally getting whiffs of vehicle fumes. Cuba is for you if you go knowing what to expect, and with an open mind, an open heart, and a little knowledge of the history of the country.  Having a little common sense will also help.

A few take-aways, in no particular order (this is not a full list):

  • The hotel room star rating system in Cuba is not the same as it is in the States. Their 4 star is closer to our 2 star.
  • Just because you are “promised” a certain type, size, make or model vehicle, does not mean you are “guaranteed” it.
  • Sometimes the AC works, sometimes it doesn’t. 
  • The food in Cuba tastes different from the food in the U.S. because it is different from the food in the U.S.
  • You will lose money on the currency exchange.
  • The official language in Cuba is Spanish (Surprisingly, I have to remind people of this!)
  • Most of the Cuban people do not understand American slang. (Again, surprise!)
  • Cuba is underdeveloped by U.S. standards. (Yep! Surprise!)
  • Travelers from the U.S. have to meet at least one of twelve qualifications to LEGALLY travel to Cuba from the U.S.
So, think about it.  Are you REALLY ready to visit Cuba?  Know that spending most of your visit griping and complaining about how the country doesn’t have the comforts of “home” won’t change anything. Are you ready?  If your answer is yes, great for you!  It is truly a remarkable place filled with a rich culture and friendly people just waiting to greet you!

Cuban Dining…Good Without Excitement

The food in Cuba was good, but void of the heat and spices I enjoy so much.  Actually, I would venture to say that had I stayed there for a few more days, I might have grown a bit bored with the cuisine.  While the Cubans tend to be conservative when it comes to experimenting with ingredients and flavors, the local produce is fresh and usually organic. And the chicken, rice and beans, a national staple, were perfectly prepared each time I had it.

Also, there were days in a row where I had delicious lobster for lunch and dinner, so I am not really complaining.

With the new ripple of paladars and privately-owned restaurants popping up, I look forward to a little more excitement in their culinary growth. 

Dining in Havana

Lamb in Vinales

Lobster in Vinales

Lobster in Havana

Pumpkin Soup in Havana

Chicken Sandwich at a Rest Stop in Pinar del Rio

Ceviche in Varadero

Chicken in Special Sauce at El Aljibe

Flan in Vinales

Dining in Vinales

Havana, Here We Come!

After months of planning and preparation for our trip to Cuba, the time had finally come!  We spent the first evening in Miami at the Sofitel Hotel, as our flight the next day was an 8:30am departure and we were told to arrive at the airport 3 hours in advance.  The Sofitel Hotel is a few minutes from MIA, offers a free airport shuttle pick-up every 30 minutes,  has nice rooms and a couple of nice dining options. It was just perfect for our overnight stay.

The next morning, we met in the lobby at 4:45am for our 5am shuttle.  We arrived at the airport, met with the Cuba Travel Services represenatative, picked up our Visas, roundtrip plane tickets and boarding passes, checked our bags (yes, I had to check a bag for the first time in ages!) because the weight exception is very light and very strict, paid our $25 entry/departure fee,  and waited patiently to board our non-stop 45 minute flight to Havana.  The process of submitting our itinerary and obtaining our special travel visas was a much smoother process than we imagined. 

We boarded our Sun Country charter flight, and departed on time. No sooner than we took off, we landed.  It was a sunny, hot day in Havana.  The airport was bustling with tourists, divers, people-to-people groups, clergy, families, officials and other workers.  It was exciting, festive. After quickly clearing customs and retrieving our luggage, we headed outside the airport and were greeted by our waiting minivan driver, then off on our 20 minute ride to our first stop, Hotel Palacio O’Farril in Habana Vieja.  We were hours early for the 4pm check-in, and the hotel, like almost every hotel in the city, was full, as Pope Francis was on the island for another couple of days.  We checked in, left our bags, and went in search of an early lunch.  The hotel doorman, Clemente, not only suggested a place for us to go for lunch, he walked us two blocks to El Zaguan restaurant.

We were the only customers in the restaurant.  It was only 11:45ish. I went in  thinking I’d start off my visit with a Cuban sandwich.  After seeing the menu, I opted for “Lobster Tropical”.  Great choice!  It was paired with pumpkin soup, rice, black beans, plantains and Cristal beer.  Dessert was flan and Habana Club rum.  All for about $20.(we had to pay for everything in Cuban Pesos, of course.)

Now, off  to walk around Habana Vieja before settling into our Habana home for the next 2 nights.  We are so looking forward to the week ahead.