This is Cuba

For the first time in five decades, thanks to improved diplomatic relationships, Americans can travel domestically to Cuba without breaking the law. One world traveler jumps at the opportunity and discovers a country still struggling to find its identity.

When I heard that Americans could now legally go to Cuba, my hand shot up. Yes, please, I want to go! Now.

Flash back to 1962. My first introduction to Cuba as a youngster was an international catastrophe associated with the threat of a nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis, instead of piña coladas and the warm restorative breezes of a tropical Caribbean island, defined Cuba.

For most Americans, Cuba, the land of rum, rumba and revolution, has been off the grid for more than 50 years. Cold war politics slammed the door on what was once one of the hottest, most popular and glamorous exotic destinations for Americans. Cuba’s capital, Havana, was the “Latin Las Vegas,” a sizzling, hedonistic escape.

Although the Cold War has long been over, the door to Cuba has remained largely shut. It has been off limits to Americans ever since President Kennedy’s trade embargo of the early ‘60s, forbidding American citizens to travel to or conduct business with this Communist country.

So in 2011 when President Obama opened the door a crack by easing restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, I wanted in.   I wanted to see it for myself before waves of American tourists and investors transformed the island and made it into a franchise.

I was curious about this controversial island that polarized Americans and provoked heated discussions. I was intrigued by the mystique of the fabled Cuban Revolution and its mythic leaders: Ernesto “Che” Guevara (the revolutionary hero whose handsome image is frozen in time) and the iconic Fidel Castro, the commandant who led the country from its overthrow in 1959 until 2008.

I wanted to listen to Cuban jazz and dance the rumba and the salsa to the vibrant pulse of bongo and conga drums. Oh, and let’s not forget the rum—and the cigars—and those 1950s Chevys. The list goes on.

I was particularly interested in Cuba’s thriving art scene.  The icing on the cake, of course: It is a tropical island with appealing weather and easy to get to from Florida. Because Cuba has been the forbidden fruit, it is easy to forget it is a Caribbean island just 90 miles from southern Florida.

American travelers can now easily and legally go to Cuba, but there is a catch. You must travel with a licensed organization that offers a cultural or educational experience, and you must abide by a set itinerary. The goal of this “purposeful” travel is to encourage interaction between the Cuban people and U.S. travelers. These People-to-People Educational Exchange licenses are granted by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which regulates all travel to Cuba and other countries considered a threat to the U.S.—including, Iraq, Iran, Burma and North Korea.  


The good news: We can go. The bad news: Because “tourism,” per se, is not officially sanctioned by our government, there are restrictions.

We cannot veg out on those gorgeous sandy beaches, tee it up on a growing number of golf courses, participate in Cuba’s outstanding fishing venues or scuba dive among Cuba’s impressive reefs. No doubt, this will not always be the case. But there is still plenty to see and do during a visit to Cuba.

Finding these People-to-People programs is easy. A quick look on the internet for organizations with People-to-People licenses to Cuba shows many, including numerous university alumni associations—UCLA and University of California, Santa Barbara amongst the local ones.

On that list are museum associations, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Santa Barbara Museum of Art, broad-based educational travel organizations such as National Geographic Expeditions and Smithsonian Journeys, as well as specialized Cuba travel operators, including Cuba Cultural Travel and Insight Travel. Your travel company will take care of your flights to/from Cuba as well as your visa.

Havana is a surprising mix: a proud, historical center ravaged by other priorities of the revolution and a city undergoing revitalization as it enters a new age of promise.

Tip: Before signing on, confirm that your travel company has the mandatory People-to-People travel license. The granting of these licenses can get bogged down in bureaucratic snafus resulting in last-minute delays and cancellations.

It is still the law: All U.S. citizens are obliged by the U.S. government to have a license for travel to Cuba. Many Americans opt to travel to Cuba without a license, usually by way of Canada or Mexico. But the bottom line is it’s illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba without a license. If Uncle Sam gets wind upon re-entry to the States, the penalty can be stiff.


I set about finding a group that had an art and cultural focus and found a Passport to Folk Art trip offered by The Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. Working with Cuba Educational Travel (the People-to-People license holder), our leader, Peggy Gaustad, created an itinerary that started with two places on the more remote eastern end of the island: Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa. We finished our trip with several days in Havana.

Our itinerary was chock-full of visits to art schools and artists’ homes, museums, dance performances, discussions with educators and experts on historic preservation and restoration, women’s issues, a history of Cuban music and visits to places of historical import.

Our first stop, Santiago de Cuba, satisfied my history itch. It was founded by the Spanish in 1514 and centuries later was the site of the first armed action of the Cuban Revolution in 1953—six years before Castro proclaimed victory from its city hall. Afro-Cuban culture, with its music, myths and rituals, has its roots here, and it is also the site of Cuba’s most exuberant carnival (think Mardi Gras on steroids).

From Santiago de Cuba, we boarded a luxury bus, which drove us through beautiful Guantanamo—yes that Guantanamo—Province as we headed to the eastern tip of the island. The U.S. Guantanamo base is well protected from ”enquiring minds” and basically out of sight.

We took the scenic and windy La Farola highway through the Sierra del Purial Mountains, finally descending into Baracoa, the oldest colonial city in the Americas (1510) and Cuba’s first capital. Baracoa is located on the spot where Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492 and referred to it as “the most beautiful place in the world.”
Sweet Baracoa, with its colorful colonial houses, horse-drawn carriages, brilliant blue seaside, and … wait for it … Cuba’s leading chocolate manufacturer appropriately sits in the Bahia de Miel (Bay of Honey). This is authentic Cuba, underdeveloped and off the beaten tourist path. Like Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Our flight from Baracoa to Havana took two hours, the longest flight in the country. Havana is, of course, the magic center of American consciousness of Cuba and the #1 “must see” for any first trip. Havana is a surprising mix: a proud, historical center ravaged by other priorities of the revolution and a city undergoing revitalization as it enters a new age of promise.  

Old Havana contains the core of the original city of Havana founded in 1519. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of charm and easy to explore on foot. Narrow streets feed four cobbled plazas, comprised of colonial buildings and 16th-century fortresses, where the exhilarating sounds of Cuban music put a smile on your face and a hop in your step. If you look closely, you might see the ghost of Ernest Hemingway at the bar of the Floridita.

Much has been written about the raw and crumbling buildings famously eroded by time. Cuban conservator, city historian and director of Old Havana’s restoration program, Eusebio Leal, has—through Herculean efforts—rescued and preserved hundreds of landmark buildings in Old Havana. It is an ongoing process.

While our trip focused on the remote eastern part of the island, many itineraries instead include a night or two in Trinidad, Cuba’s best-preserved colonial city, and Cienfuegos (The Pearl of the South), the only city in Cuba founded by French settlers. Both cities are on the UNESCO World Heritage list and are within a four- to five-hour drive from Havana.


Cuba is full of surprises.

We were advised, “Don’t go to Cuba for the food.” With a foodie for a husband, that warning didn’t bode well. Yet the quality of the food was a happy surprise.
The main course of our first dinner was a local favorite: fresh, broiled Caribbean lobster, hot and delicious. Other frequently offered dishes included pork and chicken and the ubiquitous rice and beans. Every lunch and dinner came with a fresh salad.

The Cubans have a great custom: enjoying a refreshing mojito or Cuba Libre to get the appetite going before each meal. Other pluses that rate a special mention include local rum Havana Club and two domestic beers. Yum.

You will see no advertisements for Coca-Cola or Apple iPads along the roads. What you do see, however, are many political billboards promoting the ideology of the government: patriotism, socialism, civic participation and U.S. hegemony. Idealized images of Che are everywhere.

When we travel, the impression we take home with us of any country is a tapestry comprised of its geography, history, architecture, politics, music, dance, art and food. But the most formative influence of all is its people.

Cuba is an ethnically diverse population. People of Spanish, French, Haitian, African and Chinese origin make up its roots. We were all taken by the warmth and friendliness of these proud and resourceful people. Their endless creative spirit and passion for betterment excites and energizes.

Beneath the thin layer of optimism, reforms and the promise of betterment are many layers of a turbulent history, repression and economic fragility. Cuba has many rough edges, but there are so many signs of vitality and growth.

Since Raul Castro took over from his brother, Fidel, in 2008, a new slate of key economic and social reforms have been put in place. Important for tourism: the expansion of private enterprise. Viva la entrepreneurialism!

Under the new self-employment laws, a variety of innovative, private, for-profit (and taxable) businesses have proliferated. Evidence of these entrepreneurial efforts were everywhere: barber shops, the fruit and vegetable street carts, Coco taxis (the Cuban equivalent of a rickshaw), the huge Artisan Market where hundreds of artisans sell their handicrafts on Havana’s oldest pier.  

Nowhere is this new spirit more apparent to the visitor than the rapid growth of paladares—charming, private, family-run restaurants operated inside a home. Lively music accompanied all of our meals in these quaint dining spots. These local kitchens are big improvements over the state-run restaurants often thought to be lacking for the sophisticated traveler.

Cuba is complicated.

Beneath the thin layer of optimism, reforms and the promise of betterment are many layers of a turbulent history, repression and economic fragility. Cuba has many rough edges, but there are so many signs of vitality and growth.

Our visit to La Guarida, a highly-rated Havana paladar, became a metaphor for Cuba itself. We walked warily through a small, unmarked doorway into a fabulously decrepit—once grand—marbled lobby.

Painted directly onto the uneven cement wall was the weathered image of revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos with the Cuban flag. We climbed four flights up a marble staircase, each of us secretly wondering what kind of restaurant could possibly be holed up in such a dilapidated structure.

Then, BOOM!

We walked into grandma’s home—a warm and inviting series of chandeliered rooms, walls full of art and photos of life in Cuba. Wonderful aromas were followed by a delicious dinner.

The image continues to fascinate me. It conveys the crumbling exterior that hides vitality within … a new heartbeat. We were acutely aware that a transformative process was taking place right before our eyes. 

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