Cuba is in the news lately — mostly political. The result is it is opening up to tourism again.
A favorite destination of my parents in the 1950s, that was a time when Americans flocked to Havana to enjoy the tropical weather, beautiful beaches and exuberant nightlife.
This all ended when Fidel Castro gained control in 1959 and nationalized U.S. business interests there. Castro’s dramatic move also seemed to “freeze” Cuba in the 1950s.
Today, classic car taxis from the ’40s and ’50s scurry all over the island, capturing the nostalgia of bygone times.
Havana reeks of the hustle and bustle of any big city, but just walking the streets is quite exhilarating. A casual stroll downtown invites warm and friendly locals to start a conversation so they can practice their English.
In addition to the retro-taxis, there are pedi-cabs and horse-drawn surreys available if walking is not for you.
Most of the buildings appear old, rundown and crumbling, yet the insides of the same buildings are well cared for, clean and nice. This is because the government owns the buildings and residents have no incentive to take any responsibility for upkeep. Just one confirming sign that their communism has failed.
Nightlife is abundant in Havana with traditional live music and entertainment competing for tourist currency. A group called the “Buena Vista Social Club” is a huge draw in the evening.
There is more to Cuba than nightlife in Havana, however. Make sure you visit the sandy beaches and lush vegetation on the other side of the island. The resorts there offer plentiful amenities like any other Caribbean destination.
You should also venture out to the “Plaza of the Revolution,” on the outskirts of Havana. In this huge public square — actually an asphalt parking lot — the people gathered to listen to Fidel Castro speak for hours when he was in his prime.
A huge iron sculpture of Che Guevara adorns one of the buildings overlooking the Plaza. The presence of this sculpture seems to contradict the notion that Che and Fidel had a fractious falling out when Che left Cuba.
Your U.S. dollars, credit cards issued by U.S. banks and traveler’s checks are not accepted in normal commerce. Cuba has a special currency just for tourists.
The Cuban Convertible Peso, called the “CUC,” is the only money you can spend. It has its own value, which differs from the Cuban Peso used by the locals.
Perhaps because of my parents’ enthusiasm, I had always wanted to go to Cuba and individual travel from the U.S. is almost impossible, so that meant a tour.
My wife and I compared the tour options. We favor packages with hotels in the older downtown sections of most cities because they are usually closest to historic locations, museums, shopping, public transportation and local entertainment.
One of the better tour options we found, for education anyway, is offered through the Road Scholar organization. Their tours are geared toward seniors.
Stuart Ashman, CEO of Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA), is a Cuban who frequently conducts tours to his homeland. His tours offer a unique perspective.
We finally chose to go with Dr. Virginia Baxter of the Long Beach City College Foundation. She had previously conducted several tours to Cuba. She plans another in 2016.
Until recently, tourism was only approved by the U.S. State Department for “religious, educational or cultural studies.” All tour itineraries are basically the same however, differing only in their emphasis. The categories have been expanded somewhat since President Obama’s new regulations were announced last year — but not much.
My advice — forget the politics. Go to Cuba!