Is a trip to Cuba on your bucket list? It was on mine, so as soon as it became legal to travel under the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC “people to people” licensing, my husband and I researched tour companies and made our reservations with an outfit named Friendly Planet. Travel agents take note: They pay a commission on all trips except for Cuba and they will help you take excellent care of your clients from inquiry to return trip home.
Having recently returned from our trip, I can honestly say that it exceeded my expectations tenfold. And for anyone who has yet to travel to a Third World country, Cuba might be the best one to start with, considering its proximity to the U.S. I have been to a number of Third World countries and was not surprised by the obvious signs of poverty that were seen at every turn of the bus or step taken on our walking tours, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Before departure, we were advised by the tour company and local travel medical experts of some important details. We did get the recommended hepatitis A shot and packed plenty of DEET bug spray. We also stocked up on Imodium and a prescription of Cipro for any possible intestinal upset that would warrant these items, but fortunately most of these were never actually needed.
We were forewarned that U.S.-issued credit cards are not accepted, nor is U.S. currency, so we made sure to bring more cash than we imagined needing to cover our expenses. We exchanged our currency for Convertible Cuban Pesos at our hotel, as we were advised that was the best and safest place to exchange it. Fortunately, most of our tour was prepaid, so we didn’t have to worry about exceeding our spending limit on the few items we could legally purchase, but we were very mindful that we could only purchase works of art to bring home, and the allowable spending limit was approximately $80 per day. An adventure like this one should also include the purchase of trip insurance, and to be sure coverage was available for Americans in Cuba, we used the suggested company, Access America.
Traveling to the Caribbean in September, we risked the possibility of adverse weather conditions, but we hit a perfect stretch of temperatures in the 90s and sunny days, all conducive to meeting the people of Cuba.
We were advised that when our charter flight arrived in Havana, the immigration and customs process would be intense, and to remain flexible. We managed to breeze through, and even had a tour leader assist members of our group so we could pass swiftly by the last customs officials. Once out of the terminal, we proceeded to our bus to settle in for what would be five days of cultural immersion with artists, schoolchildren, university professors, farmers and cigar connoisseurs.
On our first day, we took a walking tour of Old Havana and were immediately accosted by street artists quickly drawing our portraits and asking for one peso in return. It was the first of many interactions with the locals, who desperately wanted to make some extra cash. Considering the average income per person is $15 a month, it is no wonder that Cubans find creative ways to add to their income. Jobs in tourism are coveted, since most workers receive tips in addition to their monthly stipend, according to our Cuban guide, Frank. He explained that he began as a “C” level guide, which is entry-level, has moved up to “B,” which means he can also guides private tours as well as dignitaries, and is soon expected to reach “A” level, which is most desirable.
Our visit to a local elementary school and subsequent interaction with professor Jorge Sanchez, from the University of Havana, provided us with a greater appreciation for their educational system. All levels of school are “free” to attend, although to get into a college or university, one must take four achievement tests. Since they are extremely challenging, only 17 percent of the population actually pass them and go on to a university education. The remaining students must go to vocational technical schools to learn a skill and then go to work. Sanchez was particularly knowledgeable about the 200-year Cuban-U.S. relationship. He shared his perspective from the colonial era through the revolution and described the economic and international shifts that have occurred in recent years.
We visited a convent, which has local programs for everyone from preschoolers to senior citizens, and met both residents and administrators. Our group had been advised in advance to bring medical and personal supplies from home, so we made a sizable donation to this organization.
On another day, we visited Las Terrazas, a Biosphere Reserve that is a former coffee plantation that has been reforested. We brought additional personal supplies to donate to these workers, after learning about the innovative community that has been developed here.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two other highlights: our visit to Ernest Hemingway’s mansion and an evening at the Buena Vista Social Club. Music and literature are easily inspired amid that beautiful landscape and ever-present poverty.
As our journey came to an end, we became aware that future legal travel to Cuba for Americans is in question. OFAC has not renewed many of the tour operators’ licenses.
I am hopeful that the relationship between America and Cuba will flourish in the years ahead. Cuba needs to rebuild its infrastructure to embrace the number of tourists it hopes to encourage, and all of the people we spoke to would warmly welcome our collective involvement in that process.
Mimi Gough is chair of the Travel/Hospitality Department at Kaplan University-Maine.