Sunday, September 4, 2011

Blane Bachelor Reports on First Insight Cuba Trip

An American in Cuba (Legally): Part 1

August 23, 2011 by Blane Bachelor
Around midnight on my last night in Cuba, my travel buddy and I rumbled toward our hotel in a 1951 Chevrolet cab with the driver and his girlfriend, whom we’d become friendly with. Along the Malecón, Havana’s seaside esplanade, we spotted a group of locals hovering around a large fish that someone had caught and hauled onto the sidewalk.
But when we stopped to snap a few photos, it was evident that the sea creature isn’t a fish, but a shark. Exhausted fishermen struggled to hoist the four-foot body of the predator onto a bike taxi to sell at market; a few feet away, teenagers circled around the severed head, touching its fearsome teeth and screaming with skittish delight.
In a way, that scene – at once chaotic and colorful, raw and wild – helps illustrate a visit itself to this island nation, which has been all but off-limits for U.S. citizens over the past five decades. But, thanks to policy changes passed by the Obama administration earlier this year, the average U.S. citizen can now travel there legally, without the hassle of sneaking through Mexico or Canada, and the fear (and fines) of getting caught.
I was lucky enough to be among the first groups of American tourists to legally visit Cuba since 2003, when the Bush administration effectively shut it down, and our eight-day trip made headlines in both countries. Our group of 30, who traveled with New York-based operator Insight Cuba, was greeted by television crews both in Miami and in José Martí International Airport in Havana.
As I wrote in a previous post, the new U.S. regulations require that travel must be “person-to-person” through a licensed operator. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that our itinerary, which included five nights in Havana and two in the charming colonial city of Trinidad on the southern coast of the country, was packed with activities designed for interaction with locals. Among them were visits to a maternity ward (which several in our group said felt too invasive), a rural medical clinic, and a community project of Afro-Cuban artists, which I found fascinating because of its connection with the religion of Santería.
Not surprisingly, the unspoken message running through the itinerary was how socialism and former President Fidel Castro’s regime are responsible for the country’s achievements, such as nearly a non-existent illiteracy rate and universal healthcare. And even as hectic as it was, the itinerary provided a good starting point for on-your-own exploring (and gave me a greater appreciation for free time).
Indeed, as is often the case with group trips, some of my most memorable experiences came outside the van and off the schedule: a conversation about living in Spain with an overalls-wearing Havana native over a glass of sugar cane juice; listening to intoxicating Afro-Cuban jazz in an underground bar; being invited into a family’s home in Trinidad, and hearing about their struggles raising a severely disabled daughter.
And, of course, seeing that crazy shark scene unfold on the Malecón.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my posts from the trip, where I’ll discuss specific travel tips for Cuba.

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An American in Cuba (Legally): Part 2

September 1, 2011 by Blane Bachelor
Since returning from Cuba as one of the first everyday American tourists to visit the country legally in about five decades, I’ve been asked over and over again how the experience was. Here’s how I’ve been describing my trip: Fascinating. Exhausting. Eye-opening. Unforgettable.
But there are a few things I wish I’d been better prepared for – which is where this (and next) weeks’ posts come in. Here, some tips I picked up from my trip for those of you who also have Cuba on your travel wish list – and want to get there legally. (And if you have your own tips to add, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.)
It’s not as cheap as you might think: While prices for food, drinks and accommodations in Cuba are still fairly low, traveling with a government-licensed operator doesn’t fall into the budget category. You can expect to pay upwards of $400 or $500 per day for most trips  (I went with Insight Cuba; another operator, Distant Horizons, has about 45 trips in the works). Prices do cover hotels and most meals, plus a driver and English-speaking guides, charter flight (usually from Miami), airport transfers, and museum entry fees. But keep in mind that included meals are usually pre-fixe or buffet, and hotels are a notch or two below their class level compared to Western countries.
And should you decide to venture on your own to a paladar, which is a private restaurant in someone’s home, be sure to ask about prices and portion sizes before ordering. At one paladar in Havana, our group of three ended up with two whole grilled snappers, plus a pork dish and several sides – an obscene amount of food that could have fed at least six people. There was no written menu, the waitress didn’t mention it was whole fish, and we were a little taken aback when our combined bill totaled over $150 (in U.S. equivalent). Lesson learned: Ask before ordering.
Don’t expect a vacation: What the the U.S. Treasury Department’s regulations for “person-to-person” travel really means: Plenty of hours spent in a tour bus, visits to community projects, neighborhood associations and national monuments, and limited free time. It’s a great, albeit exhausting, way to get a crash course in Cuban culture and history, and it’s nice to have everything organized, without the stress of planning things yourself. But more independent-minded travelers might find themselves getting especially antsy. Check with your operator beforehand, and see if you can take an afternoon or morning off from scheduled activities, which is easier to do ahead of time instead of on the spot.
A warning for high-maintenance travelers: While Havana’s crumbling buildings and classic cars are iconic images of Cuba, the country’s lack of infrastructure comes as a surprise to some. Restrooms in restaurants, museums, and public buildings can be dicey: Toilets are sometimes bucket-flushed, paper is rare (ladies, you should always carry it), and you’re supposed to put the paper in those small trash bins in the stalls. Drinking bottled water is recommended, even in higher-end hotels. And hustling is common, especially in touristy areas like plazas and monuments. Don’t be afraid to repeat a firm “No, gracias” until they get the hint.
If you need it, bring it: That means everything from toiletries (medication, sunscreen, toothpaste, and feminine hygiene products) to snacks (I went through my entire stash of granola bars and trail mix). Convenience stores, groceries, and pharmacies aren’t readily available in Cuba.
Credit and debit cards and cell phones do not work in Cuba: This one has its own category for a reason, folks. You’ll need to take enough cash out in the states to exchange into Convertible Cuban Pesos, or CUCs, in Cuba, so make sure you have enough – about $75 per day should be more than enough for activities and expenses you incur on your own. Set aside $25 CUCs for your departure fee.

And forget about using your cell phone for communication; the trade embargo from the U.S. government means it won’t work (my Blackberry has a peculiar 8-day gap between e-mails)

  1. My comment:

    1) Unlocked GSM quad band cell phones work if you get a local sim card and pay $3 a day plus prepaid usage. Easiest place to do it is at an ETECSA office at the airport, but you will need CUC for payment.
    2) US travelers checks pay only a 3% dollar-CUC exchange rate at hotels and banks. US currency pays 10% because the US fines European banks that accept dollars from Cuba.
    3) The White House could make people to people travel much easier by granting general licenses to all IRS recognized non profits, just as it did for Cuban Americans, college students and religious organizations. It would also help if all travel agents and tour operators could book flights and programs for authorized visitors.
    4) The most open, unprogrammed and inexpensive people to people contact happens for Americans who disregard politically opportunistic official US restrictions on travel, fly in from third countries and stay in casas particulares, rent cars or use Via Azul public transportation. Visas are obtained at the airline departure desk, Cuba does not stamp US passports, and individual travelers have not been fined for four years. The moral challenge is what to say about countries visited on the US immigration and customs form. Some conscientiously believe travel restrictions are a violation of their Constitutional and human rights and have no more legitimacy than Jim Crow laws and regulations in the segregated south.
    5) Updated information on travel can be found at
    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

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