The regulations, cold-war era dinosaurs enacted over 40
years ago, effectively curtail tourism by prohibiting American citizens from
spending money in Cuba. Still, about 60,000 Americans a year, including hundreds
of wealthy Floridian yachters who pack Havana’s Hemingway Marina, exercising
what they call their “right to freely travel,” ignore the edict.
Put bluntly, Cuba is chic. It
all started about three years ago when The Washington Post published a
travel piece puffing Cuba, turning blowing off the embargo into a jet set sport.
More recently, the June 2001 issue of Cigar Aficionado devoted a
full 85 pages to, as their cover promises, stories about how to “travel” and
“invest” in Cuba, sponsored by the likes of Dewers, Hennessy, Lincoln and
Netjets, a personal aircraft broker. If
you expected Cuba’s hotels to be populated by bohemians and communists, you
will be sorely disappointed. The
presence of so many wealthy conservative tourists in Cuba, however, has so far
kept the State Department, for political reasons, from aggressively enforcing
its tourist spending ban.
If civil disobedience isn’t your game, however, another
80,000 or so Americans travel to Cuba legally each year under State Department
sanction. Currently full time
journalists and researchers, Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under
“self-defined” circumstances of humanitarian aid, students enrolled in
licensed Cuban Studies programs such as the one at UB (645-3912) or Americans
traveling on “fully hosted” trips paid for by foreign nationals such a
Canadians, can all travel to Cuba without applying for a specific State
Department license. Other Americans
who wish to perform or lecture in Cuba, attend a religious or cultural event,
engage in athletic competition, work on a humanitarian project or study or
independently conduct research for a book can apply for a specific State
Department license to travel in Cuba. For
more information see http://www.treas.gov/ofac
The State Department also licenses a number of travel
agencies to provide legal tourist travel to Cuba. It works like this: built into your package tour is a tuition
or membership fee which makes you a “student” or “member” of a licensed
“educational” or “humanitarian” group.
These trips, which usually depart from New York City or Miami, usually
cost three or four times the price of a Canadian tourist package departing
Toronto, but include a full itinary of guided tours. Global Exchange (800-497-1994), Cross Cultural Solutions
(800-380-4777) and Marazul Tours (www.marazultours.com)
all have good reputations and a long history of arranging legal travel to Cuba.
The above information deals with US regulations.
The Cubans, on the other hand, have thrown the door wide open to American
tourists. All you need is a US
passport and a tourist Visa which is provided by travel agencies and airlines,
and you are welcome to enter and leave Cuba as you wish, though they seem to
check your paperwork more carefully as you leave.
Given the red tape hassles or legal risks, minimal as they
are, it really doesn’t make sense for US citizens to go to Cuba for a beach
resort type vacation. Granted
Cuba’s beaches are among the best in the world, but what really makes a trip
to Cuba unique is its culture. And
nowhere in Cuba is the culture richer than in Havana.
Havana’s oldest neighborhoods were laid out in the early
1500s. The newer ones date to the
1700s. There’s no other city like
it in the hemisphere. Various
economic booms and regional migrations have also, over the years, bestowed
Havana with the hemisphere’s most eclectic architecture.
The economic isolation of the 40-year long US embargo has also served to
strengthen Cuba’s cultural landscape. There
are no McDonald’s here. Though
there are ominous clouds of commercialization on the horizon, Cuba so far is
relatively free of the homogenizing corporate culture that is sweeping the
And since the US embargo meant no new cars or parts,
industrious Cubans kept their old ones running as symbols of resistance to the
embargo. Tailfins still rule in
Havana, as refurbished American jalopies from the 1930 through late 50s ply the
streets. The Cuban government
recently declared these antiques protected symbols of their national heritage,
making it illegal to export them. The
visual impact of these dinosaurs, with their dim headlights glowing on
Havana’s dark thoroughfares, is nothing less than surreal.
It’s also an auto buff’s dream.
One Habanero I spoke with insists that Lee Iacocca is a regular
visitor, often flagging down old Chryslers, examining their engines and berating
their owners for replacing the tired American iron with Russian diesel truck
Your trip to Havana usually begins in Fort Erie, Ontario.
Travel agencies such as Glenny Travel (US phone: 716-853-3572) sell
package tours to Cuba. This is the
cheapest way to go. Currently, a
one week trip including round-trip airfare, tourist card and taxes, a first rate
hotel (such as the Plaza or Riviera which are mentioned later), buffet
breakfasts, and ground transportation to and from the airport, costs
approximately $630 (US dollars) per person.
The same hotel room would cost $130 per night for walk ins.
The best packages are handled through two tour operators, Hola Sun and
Magna Tours, with Hola Sun having both better rates and a better selection of
hotels in Havana.
When booking a hotel “in Havana” it is important to make sure you are actually in Havana and not an outlying suburb, unless that is your preference. Most people prefer either the Habana Vieja or Vedado neighborhoods. They are separated by a $4 taxi ride or a 40-minute stroll down the Malecon, Havana’s waterfront promenade. In Vieja, The Hotel Plaza offers 1800s colonial charm and a convenient location near Central Park, theaters, nightclubs and the Prado a promenade connecting Central Park to the Malecon. It is also convenient to museums such as the old capitol and the Museum of the Revolution, and clean inexpensive restaurants and bars.
The Vedado neighborhood is more modern, repleat with
1950s architecture, and is home to
some of Havana’s pricier nightclubs. The
place to stay in Vedado, if for no other reason than its campiness, is
The Riviera. Built by mobster Meyer
Lansky, it was the last hotel built in Havana before the revolution.
Though the rooms have been renovated, the lobby, bars and casino area are
still vintage 1957, down to the origional sunken lounge chairs and cocktail
tables. The Rivera embodies the
history of the Cuban revolution. It’s
wall of fame features early guests such as Rocky Graziano, and proceeds through
the revolutionary years with photos of Angela Davis and other revolutionary
dignitaries. There are also photos of gun emplacements in front of the
Riviera during the missile crisis.
For a variation on the urban theme, you might want to book
a room at Playas Del Este, the eastern beaches. Here, travelers can experience the small Cuban resort town of
Guanabo (frequented mostly by Cuban tourists) the beach and the outlying area,
while being a 20-minute taxi ride ($10-$20) or 1 hour bus ride (2 cents) from Habana
Vieja. Magna tours books
tourists into two inexpensive apartment complexes in this area.
Travelers should avoid the gaggle of airport style hotels in the Miramar
neighborhood as they are overpriced, ugly and above all, isolated in a rather
Whatever hotel you finally settle into, please remember,
this is Cuba. The Riviera has new
beds but awful solid foam block pillows. The
Plaza has feather pillows, but their tired old beds sink in the center.
Apartments on the beach can have a musty smell and unreliable plumbing.
No matter where you go expect leaky faucets, broken towel rings and so
forth. Again, just remember why you
are in Cuba. You’re not there for
a comfy bed.
Anything can cost anything in Cuba.
The idea of tourism is, first and foremost, to support heal;thcare,
education and economic development by extracting money from tourists.
Beyond that, Cuba is the friendliest place I have ever been to.
Cigar Aficionado writes of $50 dinners and $250 hotel rooms.
You can also, if you wander away from the tourist neighborhoods, get an
edible meal for well less than a dollar. Cuban
health standards are very high and most Cuban food poses no risk to travelers.
Tourist nightclubs have cover charges from $10-$50 or more.
You can catch the same quality show in a much more interesting venue at a
club frequented by locals for about $2. Some
clubs offer a tourist show at night and a cheaper show at 4PM for locals. The
best guide for finding your way around Havana is Christopher Baker’s Havana
Handbook, published by Moon Publications (in stock at Talking Leaves Books). Baker has also written a larger Cuba Handbook for
travelers planning on going beyond Havana.
Both books are extraordinarily well researched, candid and accurate.
Things are changing rapidly, however, in Havana, quickly making any published
resource obsolete, so keep an ear to the ground and ask around for info on
nightlife and food. Keep in mind,
however, that many of the new private restaurants pay a commission to Cubans who
guide tourists into their establishments. Sometimes your best information might
actually come from other tourists.
Currently the Cuban peso is worth about 5 US cents.
The average monthly wage in Cuba is 223 pesos, or roughly $11.
Rent is capped at 10% of income and Cubans receive free health care,
available medicine, education through graduate school, and a basic food ration.
The peso is quickly becoming an obsolete form of currency.
Public transport, admissions to certain cultural venues, ice cream and
street food are all priced in pesos, and for a tourist the cost is negligible. Consumer goods are all priced in dollars.
A doctor earns $5 per week. A
bellboy might get a $1 tip for carrying your bags.
Do the math. Tourist workers
are the ricos (rich) of Cuba.
Panhandlers are extremely professional.
Some are Quadra lingual. Some are actually in dire need of dollars.
Some are hustlers. None,
however, are violent. Despite the
economic inequality between tourists and Cubans, violent crime in Cuba is almost
nonexistent. While panhandlers and
the occasional pickpocket will work tourist areas, outside of these areas few
people will bother you. Havana is probably the safest large city in the
hemisphere. Wherever you wander, however, Cubans will want to converse with you
to practice their English or query you about life in the US.
Things are changing extremely rapidly in Cuba. The tourist industry is currently experiencing a 19% annual growth rate. Budget tourists on cheap package tours are quickly becoming a thing of the past as the Cigar Aficionado crowd muscles its way back into Havana after a 40-year hiatus. Things are also changing culturally. The new mixed economy is introducing extremes of poverty and wealth to a country whose people have not experienced such inequality in over a generation. With social inequality comes crime. Currently Cuba is still safe, friendly and affordable. It’s also relatively free of corporate culture, though this is changing by the minute, with US companies already jockeying in Cuba to protect brand recognition. The window of opportunity to visit the Cuba that I write of is rapidly closing.
Buffalo-Havana: A Tale of Two Cities
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Copyright 2001 Michael I. Niman