The Best Reasons Why and How to See Cuba Now And The Best Reasons to Wait

Old HavanaGrandpa and I recently returned from a trip to Havana.  I cannot say we just returned from a vacation in Cuba, because we intentionally limited our visit to Havana, and Cuba is not yet up to American standards so cannot really be called a vacation spot.  We are intrepid world travelers who concentrate on the various wonders of the world lists and UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, and Cuba has several World Heritage sites, scattered around the island.  Old Havana and its Fortification System is the primary site.

When Cuba was opened for travel, it intrigued us having lived just ninety miles away for more than forty years.  We asked other intrepid travelers about their experience with Cuba.  And, then we made our own decision that we should see it now and how to see it now.  Here are the best reasons to see Cuba now:

It is raw.  A positive and negative is that Cuba is not yet geared to American tourists.  It is in the process of getting there, but you can still see the real, and the ugly.  It reminded us of being two of the first tourists to enter communist China when Nixon opened up tourism there.  We got to see the real China before it became, well, Americanized.  You can see the real Cuba before it becomes Americanized.  You will see Communism and hear the peoples’ love of their country.  You will see anti-American billboards.

It is real.  People to People requirements, which need to be followed for American tourists, emphasize seeing real life and real people.  To visit Cuba as an American, there must be an educational component to the visit.  There are rules to what you must see to qualify. The rules let us meet the real citizens of Cuba, and because we are small groups, they feel comfortable answering our questions openly. We were surprised at how openly they shared life in Cuba today. We visited a day care center in an impoverished neighborhood.  We visited an elder care center and spoke to those who know the history of living in Cuba.  We met artists in their homes.  We were encouraged to go to a supermarket where the Cubans shop and see what they have available to buy, but were told not to take pictures. When the masses descend, much of what we were able to experience, and our ability to talk openly with native Cubans, will be hindered.  You can almost call Cuba today, a One on One tourist experience.

Havana is a world heritage site in transition from decay to reconstruction.  Everyone we spoke to who had been to Cuba spoke most highly about Havana.  We spoke to people who had gone on cruises, week long trips, and well traveled couple friends who researched extensively, and told us to replicate their trip.  We did.  The highlight of our trip was an extensive tour of Old Havana by an architect on the reconstruction committee who showed us everything and anything about the history, reconstruction efforts.  The UNESCO summary tells it all:

“Havana was founded in 1519 by the Spanish. By the 17th century, it had become one of the Caribbean’s main centres for ship-building. Although it is today a sprawling metropolis of 2 million inhabitants, its old centre retains an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, and a homogeneous ensemble of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards.”

We were taken to every major square, told about every major and many minor buildings, and shown how the reconstruction is progressing, or not.  See the UNESCO description of Old Havana.

You can see Havana in a few days and for an inexpensive price.  So many of us watching the Cuba People to People offerings by various tour operators have had sticker shock.  The prices are astronomical.  Apparently, the Cuban government requires a take.  Also, there are limited choices for accommodations, and those available are not up to American standards, yet.  That is why there are so many cruises on the horizon.  We listened to our friends and traveled with Gate One Travel’s Havana Express.  Gate One Travel Havana Express is the way to go, if you want to have a taste of Cuba as it exists now. Call Jackie at Gate 1 Travel for the best service at (800) 682-3333 ext. 1003 and mention you heard about Havana Express on this blog.

There are lots of requirements, and, our fabulous Gate 1 escort, who just came off a lengthy Abercrombie and Kent tour as an escort, walked us through all the paperwork and requirements, in our first evening in Miami.  We were a small group of eleven with an escort and a local tour guide.  Our local tour guide was also fabulous.  Our three days were long and full of all of the best of what to see in Havana:

Tuesday: Panoramic tour by small bus, Revolution Square (the most important square), Sao Martin Statute (the most important place honoring a most important person), architecture tour of Old Havana described above.

Wednesday: San Jose Market across from San Francisco Church (near the port where the cruise ship passengers shop for bargain souvenirs and we did too), ArteCorte barber shop and school, Casa de Abuelos (elders), Nueva Vida, Museo de la Revolution (former president’s palace where we actually entered his private office when no one else did), Jose Fuster Studio (a world wide known artist and another must see).  We even had a Mojito demonstration, and a salsa lesson, before a late night Habana Cabaret show which brought us back the 1950’s with a tribute to the Cuban musical world.

Thursday: El Dorado Cigar Store (for shopping for rum and cigars),Church of Saint Barbara Day Care Center where we sang and danced with the children, Museo Ernest Hemingway Finca Vigia (with a tour guide on premises who told us everything about Ernest Hemingway and his life on the island), home of artist Lorenzo Lopez Shening ( a young, and avant garde artist building a world wide reputation).

Now, here are the reasons why you might consider waiting.

The accommodations are inadequate to American standards.  The accommodations we had were fair to poor, but we were told to expect that.  The service was worse than the accommodations.  The vast breakfast buffet was tasteless.  We Americans are spoiled, and we can be now with the highest end tours that cost four times the amount of Havana Express, but, in Grandpa and my opinion, are not value for how you are able to experience the island right now.  The high end cruises are coming too, to give you luxury accommodations and quality food.

Cuba today is not a vacation, it is an experience.  However, it is quickly coming up to American standards for lodging.  There is an acceptable Sheraton Four Points, which happened to be next door to our hotel.  If I had known, I would have booked my room there instead of paying for an upgrade at Memories and walked over to catch the tour bus.  On June 1, 2017, Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana is opening.  It is in the heart of old Havana, and will be luxurious, with a luxurious price beginning at approximately $440 per night.  It will have a roof top terrace and pool and amazing views of the most famous downtown Havana landmarks.  Again, if you want to go now and have luxury, stay here and cab in one of the 1950’s automobiles to join the Gate 1 tour, returning to luxury at night.  Soon to open are hotels to be managed by the Marriott chain and Starwoods chain.  There are two Melia hotels that are also very expensive.  Or stay at the Memories with the tour, and upgrade your room for very little cost or not.  Seeing the accommodations right now is part of the experience.

The food is inadequate to American standards.  You will quickly learn that the embargo has had detrimental effects on life in Cuba and it affects the food available to eat.  Spices are a rarity and the food is bland and fair to poor.  This is where the high end tours may differ from Gate 1.  We learned the word, Paladar, and that it came from a Venezuelan soap opera where the lead character had a “private” restaurant, called Paladar, in her home.  When the soap opera played on Cuban television, the citizens went into an uproar to open such, according to our guide.  Therefore, there are now private homes, renovated beautifully, called Paladars, opened up to tourists for better quality food.  Out of four lunches and dinners, we went to number seven on Tripadvisor for lunch, El Literol, which had flavorful and spiced foods and was delicious, and another for dinner, La Forester, again with great food.  I would expect, but do not know, that the high end tours might frequent more of the top ten Paladars.  Yes, you can find them on Tripadvisor, and leave the Gate 1 group to eat at them.

One would think you would be limited in movement and going out on your own, but you are not.  Your escort can arrange transportation and reservations and you are able to do more on your own, if you want.  However, the tour covers all of the major highlights in an outstanding fashion for a taste of Havana.  Even with some of your own meals, and even your own upgraded accommodations, Gate 1 Havana Express is still less than other comparable tours.  The amount of time for Havana Express is just right.

Cuba is not an American family vacation spot, yet, either.  If you want to come as a multigenerational vacation, wait for Marriott and Starwoods.  Your adult children might appreciate the experience, but the grandchildren will not.

Should you go to Cuba now?  This Grandma says yes, if not only to compare it to what Cuba will shortly become, when you return with your grandchildren.  Just consider it a trip to preview Havana for a multigenerational family vacation.








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