The chance to travel to Cuba came at an opportune time. In my former job, I had planned on taking an international trip around this time period and had saved up enough vacation days for a 2-week vacation. I had penciled the time around the 4th of July to take the trip because that would have been my 1-year work anniversary, summers are usually slow in commercial real estate and I have built up a tradition of not being in the US for the Fourth.
After leaving my job in April, I was approached by my high school economics teacher, Rob, who asked if I wanted to go to Cuba with him in late June. Of course, the answer to this question is “Yes. I’ll figure out how to make this happen.” I was then booked on a week-long trip to Cuba in late June. This would be my first time traveling with a group since late 2012. Rob runs his trips to Cuba through his travel company, Cuba Cochinito Tours.
Travel to Cuba for Americans is restricted due to the embargo between the countries. While restrictions were eased in 2015 and 2016, the embargo is still intact. There are 12 approved reasons to travel to Cuba that can be found here. This trip qualified as a People to People trip although this trip would also fall under a number of other categories including educational, public performances/workshops, and journalistic.
After minimal research and planning on my end, I flew to Miami on Friday June 17, 2016 on a red eye flight. I spend the day with my family in Delray Beach and at the Miami Marlins game- a really fun experience.
June 19, 2016: So Close Yet Worlds Apart
I arrived at the Miami airport on Sunday 3 hours before the 1:45pm flight and met the group. We were a ragtag group of 6: Rob (known in Cuba by his alter-ego Roberto) the trip leader and Brentwood School high school economics teacher, a 40-year old start-up president/co-teacher of an entrepreneurship class with Rob, and three 2016 graduates on their postgrad trip.
We checked in at a special Cuba Charters desk. The line was slow and the flight stopped checking in 2-hours before takeoff. After checking in using an actual paper airline ticket (yes they still exist), we were given an envelope which contained our boarding pass, visa and return ticket.
While the flight was a charter flight, it was operated by American Airlines, so we flew out of the American terminal like any other American Airlines flight. The flight took off on-time. 41 minutes later, we landed in Havana and everyone on the plane clapped.
We walked down the stairs onto the Cuban tarmac and into the poorly air-conditioned airport. There we were greeted with a row of doors with attached tiny booths for immigration- most countries have desks instead of these quasi-rooms. After waiting in the line, I entered the booth where a Cuban officer questioned me briefly before stamping my passport and buzzing open the door at the end of the room.
We then went through a metal detector and into the baggage claim area. The room was painted in a weird mix of orange and green. I went to the restroom- the toilet was broken. The baggage claim carousels were bizarre. One worked normally. On the other carousel, the bags fell out onto the conveyor belt then immediately disappeared behind a wall before appearing at the other end of the belt 45 seconds later. This comical inconvenience could easily have been fixed by most likely switching a belt on the motor or programming the belt to run in reverse, but this is Communism…
After everyone got their bags, we exchanged money. Cuba operates on a dual currency. The main currency is called Cuban Peso (CUP) and 24 of these are worth 1 US dollar. However, tourists never use this money and instead use a currency called Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). This currency is tied to the dollar at a 1-1 rate although nobody can actually get that exchange rate. 1 Euro is worth approximately 1.1 CUC. All currencies except the USD are exchanged by the Cuban government (the only authorized moneychanger in the country) at a fair rate. However, USD exchanges incur a 10% penalty, so 1 USD actually only gets you about 0.83 CUC. The smart traveler exchanges USD to Euros or British Pounds before the trip to work around this.
We walked outside to a huge crowd of onlookers. I looked into the parking lot, saw the famed old cars, and smiled. I had really made it to Cuba!
The group hopped in a van taxi that strangely only had front doors and set off for Viñales, about a 3-hour drive away. The driver took us on the main Cuban highway which runs the length of the island. The sun was shining and there was no traffic along the road. We passed another car every 5 minutes and a horse-drawn carriage every 10. People were hitchhiking in the shade underneath the highway overpasses and fake overpasses that were essentially bridges to nowhere. Besides the beautiful green countryside, the thing I noticed was that there were no billboards or advertisements anywhere. In Communism, the government is the customer for every item so I suppose there is no need to advertise as there is no competition and not a whole lot of new products that the government is producing.
An hour in, we stopped at a rest stop where the high school graduates bought a bottle of Havana Club rum for $6. There was a nice classic car parked in the parking lot.
2 hours in, we stopped in a town called Puerto de Golpe just over the border of Pinar del Rio province, the westernmost province in Cuba and the home of Viñales. There we stopped at an artists’ compound run by a man named Mario Pelegrin. His compound is private and receives no support from the Cuban government. There we got an early dinner on the second floor of the main house. The food was amazing: Caribbean lobster, chicken, rice, cassava, and yucca. I also tried a fortified Cuban wine, which I would not recommend. Besides the wine, the bar was set high.
After dinner, we toured the farm, gardens, and pottery factory. Randomly they had a pet alligator and a peacock that was somehow able to get itself to the top of a ruined concrete barn. Behind the surprisingly large property, there was a dirt road connecting to other properties in the rural community. Someone in our group tried to show the children his phone and take pictures, but they were uninterested. They have seen camera phones before. We then headed back into the taxi.
An hour later, we arrived in Viñales at Casa Jesus y Maria, an interesting name for a couple from a Biblical perspective. It was the house of… you guessed it: Jesus and his wife Maria. They also had two grown daughters living with them.
After meeting the family, I was shown to my room.. The room was in the front, was air conditioned, had a powerful fan and had two double beds. Spartan would adequately describe the room, but it worked. The best part of the room was that my blanket had a giant lion on it.
Cuba, like a few other countries including Kyrgyzstan, has an extensive network of bed and breakfasts called casa particulares. They are privately owned and easily the most common way to lodge in Cuba. Viñales has just two hotels but around 200 casa particulares. A mid-range casa particular, like the one we were staying in, costs between $20-35 depending on the location and city with another $5 per person for breakfast. Casa particulares are registered with the government and are identifiable by a distinctive blue marking that resembles a cattle brand. We then took the rum and drank on the roof before heading into town briefly to check out the bar scene, but not much was happening on a Sunday night in the small town. We got beers at one bar before settling in for the night.
June 20, 2016: Around Viñales
We woke up the next day and got breakfast around 8am. Breakfast was served my our hostess Maria and consisted of bread, cheese, guava paste, bananas, papaya, pineapple, some type of cured meat, scrambled eggs, mango juice, guava juice, and coffee. It was a feast!
At 9, we walked outside the house and was immediately greeted by a man in a cowboy hat. He was here to take us on a horseback ride through the Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The saddle was too small for my extremely long legs, but was able to slouch and post to make it work. Guess there aren’t any Cubans who are 6’4”. One of the horses came with a machete attached to the saddle. After getting on our horses and no introduction or briefing, we set off.
The flat valley was green and lush and was surrounded by steep hills with karst limestone cliffs. The technical term for these hills is mogote.
We wandered by tobacco farms, thatched houses, and lots of animals roaming including dogs and a pig who thought it was a horse. We mainly walked, but on the downhills, the horses would speed up to a trot and one time a working canter.
Just under two hours in, we stopped at one of the thatched huts. After tying up our horses we walked in to discover it was a tobacco storage and drying facility. The process of turning tobacco plant into a cigar takes nearly a year. September is the start of the planting season. 10 days after planting, the plant is already a foot long. In October, they replant the seeds in their desired location in the field. The harvest is in springtime. After that, the leaves cure in the huts for a few months until they are ready to be rolled into cigars. A fresh cigar is too moist and will need to wait a few days to become dry enough to smoke.
The farmer took us into a cabin full of rocking chairs. There he handed us each a cigar, dipped the tip in honey and lit them up. As the grandson of a lung doctor, this is only the second cigar I’ve ever smoked in my life. That said, I can assume that the quality of this cigar was high. We then started to chat with the farmer and his friend.
Cuban farmers, like most people, work for the state. Unlike most workers, they do not get a salary. Instead, they get the right to sell 10% of their product on the open market (mostly to tourists) at the rate of $3 per cigar. The government takes the other 90% of the crop and uses it to make cigars in their factories. The farmer does not get paid for the 90%. We also talked about relationships and women, as the trip was all men. Apparently it is accepted and perhaps even expected for a Cuban man to have at least 1 girlfriend on the side in addition to his wife. These side girlfriends are often long term- spanning many years and wives most likely know that these girlfriends exist. That said, these side relationships are not public knowledge. If a relationship comes into the limelight, then trouble will ensue as was the case with one of our cab drivers.
After 45 minutes of “shooting the shit”, we finished up the cigars and I bought 10 cigars to take home- mainly as souvenirs for friends. They came rolled in a tobacco leaf that works as a humidor. We then took our cigars and pressed onward for another 10 minutes to the mouth of a cave. After dismounting, we were given a light for our group, although I actually brought a headlamp with me, which was nice. We then wandered into the cave with the help of a Cuban guide who really didn’t do much except accompany us. 10 minutes and maybe a quarter-mile in, there was no light coming in from the outside. We reached an underground lake and changed into swimsuits (it was pitch black so I had no qualms changing in front of everyone). We were joined by two Austrian girls who ditched their boyfriends at the edge of the lake. Huddled together for light, we wandered through the narrow lake passageway. At this point, wondered to myself how on earth I managed to get to this spot: waist-deep in a river in a dark cave with a group of 8 armed with nothing but a single handheld light …in Cuba. The group explored for about 20 minutes before returning to our clothes. We then walked out of the cave and back to our horses where we rode for 2 hours back to Viñales, exhausted.
Although we were very tired, the day was far from over. We ate a quick lunch then hurried into town for a salsa dancing lesson in a building in the main town square. With six guys and no girls to dance with except the teacher, we were limited to very basic solo moves. That turned out to be good since we were all very beginner salsa dancers to begin with and needed to learn the rhythm. By the end of the lesson, we learned a few basic steps and worked out a choreographed routine.
Since we were in town with time to spare, I decided to get a wifi card. In Cuba, wifi is extremely limited. Until November 2015, wifi was only accessible in tourist hotels. Now, the government has allowed wifi access in certain areas- usually public squares. Every town in Cuba (or neighborhood in a larger city) will have a single wifi access spot. The wifi area is always outdoors and is either a square or street. In Viñales, the wifi access spot was the town square. It is certainly an odd sight to see dozens of people on their phones in one area but nowhere else. To get a wifi card, one has to buy it from the Ministry of Communications’ storefront during normal business hours. Because Cubans and tourists alike have to buy the cards, there is a wait. I waited for about 30 minutes. Once at the desk, I presented my passport and was able to buy 1 hour of wifi access for $2. The card was blue and had a unique username and scratch-off password. Both the username and password were a long string of numbers. I then walked the few blocks over to the public square and logged on. While the wifi was relatively difficult to obtain, the speeds were actually pretty good.
That night we had another fantastic meal at a restaurant/organic farm high above Viñales. The meal cost about $20/person, which is about the average monthly salary in Cuba. Therefore, only tourists were dining. Immediately after sitting down, the waiter brought us a bottle of rum. Then a plate of vegetables, then another plate and another… Eventually there were at least 20 plates of food on our table. All the vegetables were grown in the garden below. As dinner came to a close, we wandered through the gardens and found a quieter lookout. A waited from the restaurant took a machete and cut up a sugar cane stalk. We watched the colorful sunset while sucking on the sugar cane and spitting the remnants as far as we could into the pineapple fields below. From there, I walked the two miles back to the hotel and went to bed early.
June 21, 2016: Vamos A La Playa
Breakfast was served at 8AM and was exactly the same as yesterday, which was good! I felt well rested after 8 hours of sleep. Apparently the rest of the group stayed out very late and was pretty tired.
At 9, two cars pulled up: a 1952 Russian car and a 1954 Dodge. I got in the Russian car, which had an ashtray in the back. The car had some modern improvements including speakers and a new engine from the 1980’s. From Viñales, we drove 40 miles to the beach in Cayo Jutias on the northern coast. Due to the poor quality of the roads, the drive took 90 minutes. Luckily the scenery was beautiful: first the Viñales valley, then the jungle of Viñales national park, then pine forests, then a few town and finally the beautiful Caribbean Sea! The beach is at the end of a small peninsula attached to the mainland by a small causeway.
The sand was white, soft and pristine and the water was aquamarine. Other tourists were around, but the beach did not feel crowded at all. After renting out a cabana and putting (not enough) sunscreen on, I headed into the nearly bathtub-temperature water. Truly pristine. Unlike other beautiful beaches around the world and in Cuba, this one was not spoiled by horrible hotels and high rises, making it all that much better an experience. I spent some time walking through the nearby mangrove forest in search of a more secluded spot on the beach. Along the walk, I found a lot of sand crabs, driftwood, and European couples who I pretended to ignore so not to disturb the romantic ambiance. Besides the people running the daily rentals and the single restaurant, I did not see many Cubans.
Around noon, we went out on a snorkeling trip to the nearby reef. We got into a boat (a big deal in Cuba) and headed about 10 minutes offshore. There, we dropped anchor and swam through the reef following our Cuban guide. Due to the strong currents, the reef looked barren (fish don’t like currents very much). Towards the end of the swim, we saw a few fish. I think we just picked the wrong day. After we got back ashore, I realized that I made a terrible mistake by not putting on enough sunscreen as my back started to hurt from the burn. It was bright red. While there was no blister, it was most likely going to peel especially since aloe vera does not exist in Cuba. Once again, we ate a very late lunch. The food was unremarkable, although it was funny how the waiter tried very hard to make me order a mojito. I was extremely sunburnt, but satisfied from the day.
Back in Viñales, we napped and then had dinner of chicken, beans, and rice- a pretty standard meal. Roberto was right in that the best meal was the first one. That night we all went out. While Viñales has a few tiny tourist bars, there is really only one decent watering hole and as a result it is frequented by tourists and locals. The “club” had a stage and an 8-piece band playing Cubano music. In between sets professional dancers wowed the crowd. After the dancers finally stopped around 11:30, the stage/courtyard was cleared and people started salsa dancing well into the morning. A perfect end to a wonderful time in Viñales.