Time is Running Out
If you’ve ever wanted to go to Cuba, go now, please. No really, get off my website and book a trip now. Ever since Obama started lifting sanctions on Cuba, the once restricted country is getting more and more Americanized, day by day, and it won’t be long before there are Wal-Marts and Holiday Inns all over the island.
I was fortunate enough to sneak to Cuba in 2002, illegally of course, when the US did not allow many of its citizens to visit and the embargo was still in full effect. The payoff: an unspoiled tropical island country that looked like it was stuck in 1962. Throughout my entire week in Cuba I did not see one cell phone, pager, or computer. Instead I gawked at thousands of classic American cars, driven as every day vehicles; ate freshly caught lobster inside a Cuban family’s modest home; and enjoyed being truly “off the grid” for over a week. No email, no phone, no MTV. It was like I was in a movie.
It’s a common prediction that all this will change–it’s actually already changing–now that Cuban-American relations are improving. This may be good for the Cuban people, so who am I to disagree with it; but it was awfully nice to go somewhere and not see a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner. Cuba was amazing.
So how did I get to Cuba if it’s illegal? First let me clarify that it’s not Cuba that doesn’t you to visit–no, they love American tourists. It’s our government. In fact, it’s not even that we’re not allowed to visit Cuba, but rather, it’s illegal for U.S. citizens to “spend American money” in Cuba. And how can you visit a country without spending any money, especially since Cuba charges an “exit tax” at the airport at departure. If the feds find out you’ve been, you can end up with a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars and even end up in the slammer. Crazy, right?
So, back to the “how did I get there” question. You can’t board a plane to Cuba from the U.S. unless you have permission from the government; like being a missionary, or a journalist, or “cultural” reasons, etc. It’s a little easier today, but before the US eased the restrictions, it was a major pain in the arse–and expensive–to get one of these “permits.” So I did what ever other American who wants to go to Cuba did: I just got there through Mexico.
Here’s how it worked: I crossed the Arizona border into Nogales, Mexico and visited a travel agency to buy a round trip ticket to Cuba from Mexico City, in cash. I now had a paper ticket from Mexico City to Havana in my possession. Next I booked a tickets from the U.S. to Mexico City online. As far as the U.S. was concerned, I was simply vacationing in Mexico.
When I got to Mexico City I simply had lunch and then got on the next flight to Havana. Holy crap, I’m in Cuba! It was pretty exhilarating, and a little scary, I’m not gonna lie!
Disclaimer: I’m not encouraging you to break the law…but you should find a way to get to Cuba. Soon.
UPDATE 2020: Laws have changed, sanctions and rules have flipped-flopped back and forth; Obama opened Cuba, Trump closed it. At time of this update, there are some easy and legal ways for Americans to visit Cuba with just a couple small formalities required. At present time, you can easily go. Always research up-to-the-minute policy and laws and get professional advice when taking a trip to Cuba or anywhere else that might be prohibited to travel by law (North Korea is the only other country with such limitations.)
When I arrived at customs, I asked the Cuban officials not to stamp my passport, after all, that’s evidence! They are used to Americans coming into their country under the radar, so they happily obliged. Soon I was in a cab heading straight into the heart of Havana.
The cabbie dropped me off a few blocks from my hotel; it was located in a part of Old Havana where vehicles were restricted, so I had to walk a few blocks. Immediately two young men approached me and offered to help with my bags. Normally I’d refuse, but I got a good vibe from these guys and we had great conversation on the way to the hotel. Imagine my dismay and confusion when we arrived at the doors of my hotel and they were quickly snatched up by police, put in handcuffs, and in the back of the police car. Would I be arrested too? I started to freak out inside. Turns out these guys were “operating” without a “tourist license” and it was illegal for them to assist tourists like me. I felt incredibly bad (even guilty) seeing these poor kids hauled away for doing nothing but helping this gringo, and it quickly became starkly apparent that it was an iron fist that kept the public in check here in Cuba. I was now on guard. I wasn’t afraid of being arrested though–it should be noted that the Cuban government and law enforcement go to great lengths to keep me–and all “tourists”–super safe. They don’t go around locking up visitors like me for no reason–just anyone who might be a threat to their tourists. While a little over the top, it did give me a sense of safety. Seems the Cuban police stood for no shenanigans when it came to the locals bothering tourists. While I hated seeing these young men being carted off for “helping me,” as the trip continued, I was grateful I didn’t have to watch by back like I did in most foreign cities. By the end of my trip to Cuba, I was convinced that this was the safest place I’d ever traveled to. The government’s message to the people were clear: don’t hurt the tourists. Right or wrong, I felt good being able to walk down a dark street past midnight on not fear my life.
It was the first time ever staying at a hostel, and though I were to have some bad hostel experiences later in life, this one was amazing. The Hotel Valencia is a very traditional old house, with an open courtyard in the center and private rooms. I took a tip from my Cuba guidebook and requested the Morelia Room and got it–a cute little space upstairs with its own private veranda. I don’t remember how much I paid, but I remember it being obscenely cheap. I definitely recommend the Valencia–very authentic. I mean, who wants to stay at a Howard Johnson when in Havana? Live like a Cuban!
The next couple days I spent exploring old Havana and there was just so much to see! There was a surprise around every corner, and being in Cuba “without permission” just made my visit that much more special. So few Americans had ever visited this place, my friends back home thought I was nuts, and for the first time in years, I was truly disconnected. No pager, no cell phone, no internet access…my room at the hostel didn’t even have a TV. It was so liberating.
One of the most interesting and eye-opening realizations about Cuba was the food…it was terrible. No really, it was bad. Bad meaning bad, not bad meaning good. In the U.S. the perception is that Cuban food is “amazing!” And yes, the Cuban food you get in the US is damn good. But finding edible meals actually in Cuba was tough. Really! You have to remember, this is a communist nation, and that means rations, shortages and other “challenges” when it comes to food and ingredients. I remember I ordered an ice cream cone in Havana and it was the worst watered-down glop I had ever experienced–I didn’t even finish it. I remember thinking, “What is this?” There were a few bearable meals here and there, including some good eggs at the hostel; but more times than not I was eating stuff that was bland, dry, and resembled prison food. Who would have thought?
Here are a few pictures I snapped along the way.
I especially liked meeting the people of Havana. They were awesome: very friendly, very welcoming; they lit up when they found out I was American and really treated me well. Lots of smiles!
And then of course, the cars. Wow, the cars! Classic cars everywhere, and what was interesting, was that these are everyday cars for the Cubans, nothing special to them–normal, like Nissan Altimas are for us. I couldn’t believe it, I felt like I was in a time machine.
Here are some other random pics I snapped while boppin’ around Havana…
After a few nights in Havana, I jumped on a bus and took a 6 hour ride southeast, to Trinidad, on the other side of the island.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, founded in 1514, Trinidad is a gorgeous little town on the sea, full of old buildings and cobble stone streets. Away from the hustle and bustle of Havana, Trinidad was filled with so many wonderful people who never hid their smiles. One of the highlights of Trinidad was eating a lobster dinner in a local’s house. This is very common in Trinidad: locals stand outside their homes advertising lobster dinners for a ridiculously low price. If you accept, you’re invited in and served a traditional Cuban meal at their dinner table. Does it get anymore authentic that this??? I remember the “Dad” watching TV is his big easy chair and the family’s little boy playing with toy cars on the living room floor; all while I was served a magnificent dinner by the Mamá, complete with lobster, sides, and cold beer. What an experience!
You Can Check In Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave
Trinidad, the twn, was awesome. But the all-inclusive resort I stayed at wasn’t great. The Hotel Ancón was a mess! From the musty smelling sheets, to the loud housekeepers, to the awful food in the restaurant–Ancón was no Sandals, I assure you. I’m not complaining; but just a note to anyone thinking that Hotel Ancón is paradise…it’s far from it. And I’m not exaggerating, the food in the restaurant was absolutely inedible. I paid good money to sleep, drink and eat at at this “resort,” and I couldn’t stomach even one meal at the restaurant; it literally paralleled prison food. I ate two rolls and grabbed a cab into town to find something “not gross.” It was a little depressing.
The beach however, was pretty beautiful. Nice pool too. Had I known, going into it, that the Ancón was a dump, things would have been easier–but sadly, I was expecting a Club Med and was pretty let down throughout my stay there.
I do have a cool memory of the cab ride into town from Ancón and seeing big crabs shuffling across the street, that was cool!
Cuba was one of the best and most memorable trips I’ve ever taken and I feel so fortunate that I was able to experience the country before it started opening up. Being “off the grid” for over a week somewhere I “shouldn’t be” was such a kick. The people were great, the sights were amazing, the stories were unforgettable. Get to Cuba now. Every day that goes by the “old” Cuba is slipping slowly away.
Ready to do it? Here’s a great article on the details of getting in and out of Cuba as an American.This entry was posted in Caribbean