Cuba– Havana from Vignoles to Varadero

Cuba, a place off limits to Americans for over 50 years, has become a bit more accessible this year as licenses for tour groups are being issued if they follow strict guidelines-cultural,educational or religious focus for example. Our group of 30 traveled with Collette Vacations as an educational group and spent 7 nights in Havana at the very nice Hotel Quinta Avenida ( 5th Avenue). This destination was unlike anywhere else in the world we had been, since the ongoing embargo means we could not use credit cards, ATM’s or cellphones and internet access in the hotel was expensive and slow. Our US dollars had to be exchanged for Cuban CUC’s or tourist dollars at a 1 to 1 exchange rate less a 13% commission withheld for the government-ouch! Fortunately, most meals and touring were included and souvenir shops were limited. Our tour guide, Enedis and driver Alberto were amazing. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable and considering they were with us each day from morning until late at night after our dinner they still kept their smiles! “So what happened”–these 7 days took us to places not normally seen such as a senior citizen home, a religious day care center, a primary school, organic farm, Colonial Museum featuring African-Cuban dance and music, historical pharmacy and private concert in a beautiful setting overlooking Matanzas. Of course, there was the visit to a cigar farm near Vignoles as the local farmer taught us how to roll a Cuban cigar- and smoke it if  you like. On our own one night we were guided by a local to a wonderful Paladar, La Familia– a privately owned restaurant which can legally be set up in someones house now. The La Cabana Castle, overlooking Havana, night tour and cannon firing was quite an experience. And then there were all the Hemingway connections- La Floridita the “cradle of the daiquiri” with delicious though expensive drinks, La Bodeguita del Medio, a tiny famous mojito bar- both favorite haunts of the author. A visit to the well preserved Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) Hemingways home about 20 minutes south of the capitol was a highlight! And oh those old, old cars from the 20’s-50’s the American brands were seen everywhere-as taxis, on farm roads, at the beach-and we all got to ride in a classic convertible car from our hotel to dinner one night in a horn blowing picture taking parade! Our food was delicious overall with lots of fresh fish,beef,chicken, pork and plenty of rice&beans including 2 welcome drinks! There was live local music at every dinner-and a chance to buy a CD or  2,3,4– The Cubans are still issued a monthly ration book and there are long lines for basic items from food, to soap, paper goods and propane for cooking. There are few cars on the road even in downtown Havana. Computers are very expensive so out of reach for most, but several we talked to had Facebook accounts!   I think every Cuban on our charter flight from Miami was loaded to the max with items from the US that are not available there.  50 years of embargo has really taken its toll. There is so much more to see on the island of Cuba and the warmth of the Cuban people will bring us back January 2014- if the US continues to issue more licenses to travel there. John & Joan