Historic Trip to Cuba

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Bleary eyed from my early wake-up call, I arrived at the departure gate before my 7:30 a.m. Monday departure to Cuba, in anticipation of the special events for this historic flight. I was booked on the first flight in over 50 years from the U.S. to Havana, and I heard rumors there might be free snacks at the gate. I was not disappointed.

After enjoying a croqueta de jamon, boarding began, and in honor of the first flight, we all received Cuban hats, a certificate, and a US/Cuba flag pin as souvenirs.

What made this trip even more historic, though, was the news from that weekend: Fidel Castro had died. While Little Havana in Miami was celebrating, Cuba’s Havana was certainly not. All music had been banned on the island for nine days of mourning, and I was hearing rumors of an alcohol ban as well. The former I could cope with, but I wasn’t going to leave the island without consuming a mojito. Castro’s ashes would be on display in Havana when I arrived, and thus, this trip turned into one of interest of the whole world. Evidence of this happened before we even left Miami — Lester Holt sat down next to me on the plane, ready to broadcast NBC Nightly News” straight from Havana that evening. After about an hour of following the Florida Keys, then turning due south for 10 minutes, we were in Havana.

While the events certainly made the trip interesting, traveling to Cuba is already an experience, even for a seasoned world traveler like myself. Having been to more than 70 countries, I’ve never visited a country quite so unique. For one, millennials like myself are in for a reality check when they try to update their Instagrams — cellphone data is expensive (if it works), and Wi-Fi isn’t readily available on the island. Citizens and tourists alike must purchase one-hour scratch-off cards for $4 with a code to log onto the government’s internet. These Wi-Fi hot spots are scattered across Havana, which you can find by eyeing the corners of folks glued to their phones.

In a socialist country like Cuba, the central government is in charge of most planning, and that includes the supply of ingredients for many restaurants serving tourists. Now, as you’d expect, there’s a healthy black market for better ingredients, but even that can’t supply a restaurant with enough to serve a newly docked 4,000-person cruise ship in port. One restaurant I dined at were out of half the menu by the time I sat down, and I saw that menu was still shrinking, so I ordered quickly.

There are a few musts when you travel to Havana. In an exception to my normal travel recommendations, eschewing hotels for a casa particular is a near requirement. Casas are rooms or apartments rented out by Cuban people (not the government), and give you a more authentic experience when staying in Havana. It’s also helpful to have a local contact in case you need advice on sightseeing, restaurants, and customs of Cuba. As of March 2016, it’s now easier than ever to book them on Airbnb. I recommend the areas of Vedado or Havana Vieja for your stay, Vedado being more residential and Havana Vieja being more in the middle of touristy areas. Staying in one of these will put money in the hands of actual Cubans, which is a great way to help while you travel.

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Photo from Flickr by Joe Ross

Other must-dos include Fusterlandia, a neighborhood on the outskirts of central Havana that has been transformed into a mosaic masterpiece by José Fuster, now an internationally known artist. His home is open and free to visit, and features a gallery of amazing artwork; every dollar made goes toward community projects in the area.

Finally, some of my favorite memories from my trip to Havana involve grabbing a (paper) map, marking where my apartment is, and finding out how to walk back to it. I spent hours wandering Old Havana streets. Each building seemed to have its own centuries-old story, and marveled at how this city must have looked at its height. I found Havana to be exceptionally safe, having no problems walking miles in neighborhoods.

Keep in mind, tourism is still not allowed by the American government — you’ll have to select one of 12 categories for reasons of travel before you depart (though many are exceptionally broad, and I was never asked my reasons for visiting upon arrival or departure, nor re-entry into the US). Also, I brought euros as my currency to Cuba — the Cuban government levies a 10% tax on any US dollars exchanged at the airport. You can avoid this by bringing in foreign currency, like the euro, the Mexican peso, or the Canadian dollar.

Overall, I thought that Havana was an incredibly unique city, one that has its charming quirks and worth a visit for an American now that it’s so easy to get to. The Cuban people could not have been more welcoming. I was told over and over about family or friends they had in the US, and what a good life they lived there. The country will be changing over the next decade, I suspect. If you’re interested in a very different vacation, I suggest booking your tickets to Cuba soon, as the Cuba I visited may not be there in a few years.

Mark Jackson is a blogger and deal finder at BradsDeals.com.

Lead photo is from Lena Wurm / Shutterstock, Inc.

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