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A Spontaneous Trip to Cuba

Photos by Alex Palomino

AFAR cofounders Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz dropped everything on Thursday and bought tickets to Cuba—because they could, suddenly. We’ll be updating this page with their dispatches over the weekend, as they explore a newly explorable country. 

Sunday, January 18, 4 p.m., Havana. We’ve been exploring the city mostly on our own.  The city is a visual treat—a true photographer’s paradise. The layers of history are so evident, the buildings so beautiful, so much in disrepair, but still so colorful and lived in. As a local told us, Havana has been very loved—as in used thoroughly. But color and life is everywhere, from the 1950’s-era American cars, many of which have been repainted; to the murals, and the colorful clothes of everyday Havana residents.

We had an excellent lunch at Donia Eutimia, a private restaurant near Plaza Catedral.  It is a non-commission restaurant, meaning they don’t pay commissions to local touts who direct tourists there. Non-commission places only have one menu—or set of prices—while most commission-paying restaurants have a separate menu with higher prices for those who have come via a tout. I don’t know how as a tourist you are really supposed to know one from the other, other than asking, and I’m not sure you will get the right answer.

We walked Old Havana, which has undergone tremendous change in the 12 years since I had last been here. Many more of the old buildings have been renovated. The streets are being resurfaced with new stone. And, most surprisingly to me, many new private shops and restaurants have opened, helping to revitalize a place that had been dominated by government-owned businesses.

Coolest Oldsmobile I’ve ever laid my eyes on. #cubafromafar

A photo posted by Joe Diaz (@joediazafar) on

We walked to the Capitol area—the Capitol building is being renovated also, and is a smaller version of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, built in the 1930’s when Cuba was largely dominated by U.S. interests. There are two hotels of note in the area: the Parque Central, a large Iberostar “5 star” hotel, and the Saratoga, a smaller “5 star” that is in a beautifully renovated building—that would be my first choice for a return, unless I were to rent a larger home.

We wandered into the area of Cayo Hueso, a more run-down area than Old Havana. I had met touts on my last trip to Havana, and had so far largely ignored their entreaties, but we didn’t have a map and were fairly open to conversation and direction, so we took up with Manolo. He helped provide color to the neighborhood, taking us through the Afro-Cuban art street Callejon de Hamel.

We stopped in ration shops. Every Cuban gets a ration card that entitles them to a pound of chicken, fish, 9 or 10 eggs, rice, beans, and some other staples every month. There is a separate ration shop for the dried goods and one for the meat and dairy. Cubans are also entitled to health care completely free, and their doctors are well regarded, even though they are only paid about $30/month.

Lower paid Cubans earn about $10–$15/month, while professionals like doctors earn $25–$30/month. (The Cuban dollar is about $1.15 to the U.S. dollar.) The highest paid people in general work for foreign companies and next are those in tourism, where they have access to people with much higher incomes.

Cubans we talked to are so excited about the end of the U.S. travel ban. Tourism has been one of the bright spots in Cuba’s economy since the end of Soviet support after the Soviet Union fell.

But the opening of tourism from America will transform this country. We talked to many locals who said how shocked they were on December 17, when Presidents Obama and Raul Castro announced the prisoner exchange, and Obama declared that the U.S. would be opening an embassy and allowing travel from the U.S. People said they never thought that would happen in their lives.

It is a very exciting time to be here. It is not easy. There are all kinds of rough edges, like garbage and dog poop in the streets, dilapidated buildings and poor infrastructure, not to mention the travel inconveniences of lack of credit cards, lack of phone and internet connection, very few hotel rooms and difficulty of sorting through private housing, difficulty in finding English speakers, etc. But for those willing to put up with major rough edges and difficulties, it is exhilarating. 

 

 

Saturday, January 17, 12 p.m., Havana. We were in! And we want to share the word. So we do what we normally do when we land: we turn on our phones with international calling plans. No service. As I mentioned earlier, one of the key aspects of the regulations released Thursday by the U.S. government was that U.S. telecommunications companies could establish agreements and connections in Cuba, meaning that American citizens would be able to get mobile phone service in Cuba. We can see that the carrier Cubacel is available, but our phones won’t connect to it. How long will it take for the American companies to make that happen? I don’t know, but longer than it took our travel agent to be able to book air travel into Cuba.

So how would we access the internet? Not at our casa particular. We wandered the city, focused primarily on experiencing the city, but with our eyes out for a restaurant or bar with Wi-Fi. No go. Internet cafes seem like a thing from the past in most of the world, but maybe they are used in Havana? We don’t see any. Oh well, we get carried away with our explorations. Connecting to the world can wait.

We learn the best way to access the internet is at major hotels, where you can buy temporary access.

Saturday, January 17, 9 a.m., Havana. When trying to clear border control on arrival at the Havana airport, Joe and I were each told by separate agents to step back after our initial presentation of documents. We were then jointly questioned by a senior agent, who asked lots of questions, and busily wrote our answers on a scrap of paper. We were being questioned because we had answered on our entry forms that we were in the media business and were here as journalists. Journalism is one of the 12 categories that are specifically allowed under American law for visiting Cuba—the ones that used to require a specific license but as of Friday were now allowed under general license, self-certified by the traveler.

(Prior to departure from Panama City, we were told by the Copa Airlines staff that, as Americans, we needed to buy visas to Cuba for $20 each—which we did.  On the flight, everyone was given entry forms to complete, that included fields for occupation and reason for visiting Cuba.)

After about 15 minutes of questioning, mostly about what kind of journalism we did, how much money we brought, what kind of credit cards and what electronic devices we brought, the senior official—actually a young man—took us back to the original border agents and let us go through the entry process again.

The border agent cleared me—signified by stamping my passport, the thing I so anxiously avoided on my last visit. It shouldn’t be a problem under the new policy. Shouldn’t being the key word—who knows? Interestingly, the agent didn’t stamp Joe’s passport. Anyway, we cleared that, and then headed to the exits. Joe was stopped again en route. More questions. Mostly the same stuff. Then we headed to the exit. Stopped again. A new form to fill out. We completed that, and cleared. We were in.

I can’t say we were ever worried, but it was certainly an awkward process. And we were certainly pleased to be in!

 

 

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Friday, January 16, 9 p.m., Panama City. Lauren, our travel advisor, works with Lee at Vaya Sojourns, a Cuba outbound operator, and Ana at Transnico, a travel operator in Havana.  She asked them to try to find us a place to stay since there were no hotel rooms available. Ana had trouble with the search, as they didn’t have electricity in Havana on Friday morning, but she called around and found us a casa particular—private guesthouse—in Old Havana. She even went and checked it on in person. I got the email confirmation this evening, so that is a big relief, and really appreciated. That saves a lot of hassle.  Thank you Lauren, Lee and Ana.

Friday, January 16, 7 p.m., Panama City. Credit and ATM cards and mobile phone service. The first I totally take for granted, and the second nearly so. But going to Cuba, I’m nearly certain I won’t have either.

In Thursday’s announcement, the U.S. government said that Americans will be able to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, and that U.S. telecommunications companies will be able to provide services, effective immediately. But that doesn’t mean in actuality immediately.

So I have to withdraw cash from my bank and carry it around. I remember doing when I made my first international trip in 1981, I had a money belt. What a pain. How much to bring? I need to have enough to pay for lodging (which I have not secured yet), food, getting around and any emergencies. I decide on $5,000. And I’ve heard you should have Euros for the easiest and best conversion—a big change from 2002, when I remember paying in greenbacks for everything. Well, at least the Euro exchange rate is more in my favor at the moment. But it is a lot of money to carry. I put most in my bag and some in my wallet. I’d better be more careful with my bag than I normally am. Especially since credit cards won’t bail me out.

As for phone service, I am used to having phone service most everywhere I travel, but I don’t think it is the end of the world in the small percentage of places where I don’t—especially if I know it in advance. The biggest issue of not having mobile service in Cuba was the idea of meeting up with Joe, who was coming in from New York. I had originally planned to get in around midnight on Friday, find a place to stay and then meet up with him after he gets in at 10:00 a.m. But since I likely wouldn’t have had a good way to tell him where I found to stay, I decided to stay at the Panama City airport hotel and take the same flight as Joe to Havana. Easy. How did I used to do this? Like everyone my age, I used to always travel without mobile phone service and always managed to meet up with friends all over the world.

011815cuba3Friday, January 16, 6 p.m., Panama City. I went to Cuba in 2002 for the reason that most Americans want to visit: Cuba is one of the least Americanized places on the globe. Or at least one of the least influenced by the U.S. since 1962—or whatever year the American embargo and travel ban were instituted.

My brother, friend and I bought an airline ticket in Cancun, arrived at the Havana airport, where the Cuban border guard dutifully neglected to stamp our American passports (which would have memorialized our violation of American policy). We checked into one of the large hotels, paying in cash, and then explored.

Four eras of Cuba are apparent in the physical makeup of the city: the Spanish, Cuban-American, Cuban-Soviet, and post-Soviet eras. Just walking around and seeing these and trying to appreciate their history are worth the trip. But as you might expect, it is the spirit of the people that I remember best—shown through the music, dancing, drinking, and food (though I remember as many disappointing food experiences as I do good).

One of the more fascinating things to me on that visit was a glimpse into two worlds that Cuba maintained. There was the official world of licensed hotels, restaurants, transport, and other businesses that largely transacted with foreigners and locals with money (those in government or in cahoots with the government). And then there was the world of everyday Cubans.

The official businesses operated on a different currency than the places frequented by locals. The price structures were radically different, as locals would be paid something like $20/month and the tourist-facing businesses were priced not so different than they would be in other Western countries. So these were two radically different worlds.

As you would expect, many ordinary citizens coveted more valuable currency from visitors. But the government didn’t want that; it wanted tourist money to go to official businesses.

We had befriended some locals in the city and saw them on a few occasions. At the end of our time in Havana, we had decided to go to a beach town a couple hours out of town and were trying to figure out the best way to get there. One of them had a friend who was a driver, had a good car and could use the extra money. That seemed reasonable. It wasn’t really about saving money, but helping this fellow out. But we certainly had second thoughts when he was driving through the city anxiously watching for police and turning if he saw one.

I’ve heard the two-currency system has been abolished. I’m very curious to see how separate the two worlds are now. The Internet has brought about rapid changes in citizen or sharing businesses in the rest of the world, beginning with eBay and to things like Airbnb and Uber. I know of course that Cuba will be “behind,” but what of its pace of change? How will I feel it has changed these past dozen years compared to the rest of the world?

I hope to see tomorrow.

Friday, January 16, 11 a.m., Houston Airport. On Thursday morning, the Obama administration announced further steps in making travel easier to Cuba. The biggest change was that the requirement that travelers get a license from the government in advance was being lifted. Travelers still needed to be going for one of the 10-or-so designated purposes, but these were pretty broad reasons and, most importantly, this would be self-certified. Most startlingly, the effective date of this change was the very next day.

My reaction to the changes: Wow. The administration had announced in December they were taking steps to ease travel restrictions to Cuba, but they left the timeline vague. In December, the only tangible immediate action was to make it easier for Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba to see their families. The announcement on Thursday affected everyone else. And that’s why I’m on a flight to Panama City right now. After an overnight there, I’ll be in Havana by Saturday.

There were other biggies. American airlines would be able to start flying to Cuba after getting necessary approvals. Americans would be allowed to use credit cards while visiting Cuba. These would take some time to happen. But it was clear, things were moving fast.

I had gone to Cuba around a dozen years ago “illegally.” My brother, a friend, and I had bought round-trip tickets to Cancun, and in Cancun bought tickets to Havana. It had been one of the more fascinating trips I have ever taken.

Cuba reopening to American travelers is one of the biggest things in travel in 2015.  People are going to want to know when to go, how to go, and what to expect. I felt like I had to go and see for myself.

My original plans had me flying to New York on Friday from San Francisco. I called AFAR cofounder Joe Diaz—who was in New York—and said, “I think we need to get to Cuba this weekend.” Joe agreed immediately.

I called Lauren Maggard of Jetset World Travel, a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council and an expert on travel to Cuba. It took me a while to reach her—her phone was ringing off the hook. I told her what Joe and I wanted to do. Lauren told me, “Great idea!  But there are no hotel rooms available.” I said we could figure that out on the ground.

There were no seats on the ‘official’ charter flights from Miami to Havana. I would have to do it the way I had a dozen years ago and buy tickets at a foreign airport like Cancun. But were there any seats on those flights? Lauren checked with her air desk, and confirmed there were no available seats from Cancun or Mexico City to Cuba. But there were seats available out of Panama City. So, I told her to book us in and out of Panama City, and we would get the tickets to Cuba there, or try to get a foreign travel agent to buy in advance. She wrote me back an hour later, and said they were able to book the ticket all the way to Havana—the first time they had ever been able to do this. Lauren said, “This is wild. Things are changing by the moment.”

Watch this space, and the #cubafromafar hashtag, for on-the-ground dispatches from Joe and myself.

Watch Joe Diaz on CNN, talking about the U.S. government’s easing of travel restrictions to Cuba.