Traveling to Cuba was very different
from other trips we've taken.We were NOT tourists, but members of a Cuban government
authorized People-to-People educational tour.Our Road Scholar
itinerary was prepared by the Cuban government and a Cuban Study
Leader (tour guide) accompanied us at all times.
So, things were planned and organized to
provide us with the view of Cuba that the Cuban government
wanted us to see.That
said, traveling to Cuba was fascinating and educational, sad and
Our Political Welcome
Our American Airlines charter
flight from Miami to Holguin, Cuba took a little over an hour.In Miami we completed
visa forms, health forms, and signed an affidavit indicating that we
understood we were not tourists.At Cuban passport control in Holguin, our forms were reviewed
and our pictures taken.We
were instructed very sternly not to smile.(Upon our departure two weeks later, our
pictures were once again taken.)There definitely wasn't a warm welcoming attitude at the
airport as there has been in so many other countries.We were entering a very
hard country where political tensions between our governments
existed for a generation.We
were not tourists; we were participants in a study group to be
educated.And we were!
In contrast to the airport staff, our first Cuban study leader
was an extremely open, well educated, accomplished individual who
shared both the positive and negative aspects of his personal life
Our Itinerary Overview
Our Cuba exploration consisted
of three segments as can be seen on the map.The first segment was
four days touring the eastern end of the Cuban island by bus.We then boarded a ship
for five days to circumnavigate the island.We docked in Havana
Harbor for two days, where we had walking and bus tours.Then we had a
port-of-call at the western most part of Cuba, where we took an
eco-tour of the National Park Peninsula Guanacahabibes. The
third segment was via bus through central Cuba returning to Havana.
Our Cultural Introduction to Cuba
Unlike some trips where the scenery or
physical activities were the focus, cultural awareness dominated
our time.In our
12 days in Cuba, we attended or visited:
3. Casa del Chengui (Afro-Cuban
4. Danza Combinatoria
5. Callejon de Hamel (Afro Cuban
All women drummers
6. Muraleando (Water
Tank Community Center), Havana
6. Muraleando ochestra
6. Muraleando homemade
a medical center
Left to right: Cuban
tour guide, doctor, nurse
Doctor lives upstairs
They grew herbs for medical treatment.
three artists' homes/workshops
Bone art studio, Holguin
Contemporary artist with
Pottery artist, Trinidad
a cigar factory (no pictures were allowed)
publishing office (broken elevator, walked down nine flights)
shop where they made their own paper
The key element in this
process was the 1960 Soviet washing machine (blue
rectangular object on right). They said it never
worked well with clothes, but was perfect for
transforming recycled paper into a gooey liquid which
when screened and dried made usable paper.
Several prints are hanging on wall.
a Dominoes Club (where we learned to play this
popular Cuban game)
Ernest Hemingway's home where he lived and wrote for almost 25
Jose Marti Cemetery and changing of the guard
a few museums and churches
many central squares and monuments
we had a thrilling car ride in a 1950 Classic American
Meeting Cuban People
The most critical educational aspect of our trip
was the people-to-people interactions – our discussions with owners,
artists, and workers.In
total we probably spoke with a couple dozen people.We were free to ask them
any questions, excluding politics. We heard about their training and
exception of the cigar factory, the major complaint was lack of
supplies or the lack of opportunity.For example, the artists had trouble getting paints, the
doctors had trouble getting medical supplies, the restaurant cooks
had trouble getting food, and the printers had trouble getting
paper. We did talk about the blockade (Cuban word) for the American
exception, the Cubans were excited that President Obama would be
lifting the blockade.
Crew members aboard ship
Paladar waiter showing off the
oven he built
In addition to the group discussions, we spoke with about a dozen
Cubans by ourselves outside the group setting, including our bus
drivers, workers at hotels, and most exciting, a 72 year old
pensioner we met on the street.One evening when we were walking by ourselves we were saying
to young people "do you speak English?"And, behind us, this man said "I speak
English!"We spent an
hour speaking with him.He
had lived in Miami from 1957 until 1962. He graduated high school,
worked a couple of years, and only returned to Cuba because his
parents needed him.He
became an English teacher as his career and was extremely proud of
his accomplishments and that of his two children:one was a doctor and the
other an engineer.
TV Talk Host
Our group met a local TV talk show
hostess in the City of Guantanamo.She had been on TV for many years and had
a noon hour talk show that focused on local news and events,
interviews, and social calendars.It was non-policital.She told us that there were political shows that people
could call in to.She
told us that she rode the public bus to work and didn't think of
herself as a celebrity.
It seemed that almost every house had a TV aerial. We were
told there is a very wide range of programming available, most
coming from Latin American countries.
All programming is controlled by the government.
Fiesta de Quince Anos
This is a celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday.In Cuba it is a major
event.Our tour guide
told us that he has two daughters that are approaching 15, and that
it is going to cost him a considerable amount of money for their
These pictures of a young woman being prepared for her photos were
taken in the town square of Cienfuegos.We saw another quinceanera in Holguin sitting
on the top of the back seat of a classic American convertible being
driven around the town with the horn blaring.
Our Cuban tour guide (study leader) was around 40
years old and remembered the Special Period during the 1990s when
the former Soviet Union collapsed and with it the Cuban economy.He conveyed how this
period of lack of resources was an engine of innovation for Cubans.We heard that repeated
many times from others.Here
are a couple of examples:someone
had figured out how to re-charge batteries soaking them in salt
water; a print shop could not get paper so they figured out how to
use recycled paper to make new paper.The owners of classic American
automobiles cannot get parts so they have found ways to make them
and/or modify parts from other cars.
Cuba has two parallel currencies.The money used by Cubans
is called the Cuban peso (abbreviated CUP). The money converted from
other currencies is called the Cuban convertible (abbreviated CUC).
It takes 25 pesos to make one convertible,25 CUP = 1 CUC, and our exchange rate was 1
CUC = $0.87 U.S.
Cubans receive their salaries in CUPs.The medical doctor we met made 1300 CUPs
(about $45) a month, the nurse 800 CUPs ($28) a month, and the
pensioner we met said he received 325 CUPs ($11) a month. We
were told that Cubans do not pay for education, medical needs and
each receives a food ration. They do pay for electricity and
pensioner told us that he needed to do English tutoring on the side
to make ends meet.
Cubans who work in the tourist industry are much better off than the
typical Cuban as they have access to CUCs.For example, the artists we visited sold their
work to tourists and were paid in CUCs, and the Paladars were paid
by Road Scholar in CUCs.Our
tour guide, bus driver and the cultural centers we visited, each
received tips in CUCs from Road Scholar.
Housing, Hotels and Transportation
Our first two nights in Cuba
were in Gibara (population 75,000), a city on the north coast facing
the Atlantic Ocean.The
streets were narrow, barely wide enough for our bus.Many times the driver had
to go back and forth to complete a turn.Almost every house was constructed of concrete
blocks, with the exterior walls unfinished.Only occasionally did we
see houses with painted exterior walls.Most houses were two story.If the second story had
an exterior staircase, that meant they were two separate homes.Furnishings always
appeared sparse, but there was a flat screen TV in almost every
house (see note on TVs below).
We were told by our tour guide that most families live in small one
or two room houses, and very frequently these were
said that having so many people in one house was a major cause of
the high rate of divorce in Cuba.
The primary bus system in Gibara was horse drawn carts, very
appropriate for the narrow cobbled streets. We saw only a few
automobiles and buses.
The housing and transportation systems we saw in Gibara were
repeated throughout Cuba outside the big cities.In the bigger
cities, we saw more painted exteriors on the houses and
consider car and bus traffic.
Our hotel rooms were consistently of very high quality.About half our hotels
were Cuban government owned. The other hotels were joint
venture partnerships between the Cuban government (51%) and foreign
investment (49%) .Surprisingly,
the government hotels had more charm than the private as they were
century old buildings recently renovated on the outside and totally
modernized on the inside.On
the other hand, the joint venture hotels were extremely modern
couple were three-star and one was a five-star (but we only stayed
for one night, and only because of flooding at the three-star we
were supposed to be at!).
Shopping and Food
We visited three local markets.The first sold shoes,
clothes and other household items.Walking through this market felt as if we were in a thrift
shop with all items on open shelves and racks.The second was a farmers'
market, much like we have here with stalls overflowing with fresh
also had a meat section, but there was no refrigeration. The third
market was a ration market where the Cuban people brought their
ration books to collect their monthly allotments of rice, grains,
sugar, eggs, oil, and salt.
Rice, grains and sugar
Occasionally we saw a crowd in front of a store.We were told
that usually meant that some commodity had arrived which
was in limited supply and people lined up as soon as
they heard it was available.Our Cuban study guide told us that
when he built his home he had to line up on many
occasions to get building materials (bricks, cement,
wiring, etc.) as these materials were never "just
built his home on top of a relative's home and it had an
Regarding our meals, overall the food was average.Breakfast was usually
a buffet similar to any hotel restaurant with eggs, fruit,
cereal and bread.Lunch
and dinner menus usually had two or three items available from
fish, lobster, chicken, and goat. About half our meals were in
recently established Paladars (privately owned restaurants
within the owner's home) while the rest were in government owned
of the Paladars were only months old and the oldest a couple of
government has allowed very slow, but steady expansion following
market driven ideas rather than central planning.We always met with
the Paladar owners to hear about their experiences opening a
private restaurant in a Communist country. It appears that the
Paladars were in the forefront of introducing marketing concepts
indicated that the capital for opening the restaurant came from
friends and relatives outside Cuba.The most common complaint from these
entrepreneurs was how difficult it was to get reliable
We could not see how food was prepared in the "typical"
home, but when walking through the Paladars and artists'
homes/workshops, we saw their kitchens.Granted these were
successful people, so their kitchens were modern with microwave
ovens, stoves, refrigerators and freezers.We saw both electric
and gas ranges.Those
with gas used gas canisters.
graduate school is 100% free in Cuba today.School is compulsory
for children ages 5 through 16, and Cuba enjoys a 99% literacy
rate, amongst the highest in the world.Exams are used for
did not visit any schools, but did see the children playing at
couple of times we saw children out in the middle of the day.They were on lunch
break and went home for lunch.We were told that if that wasn't an option, they were
given lunch at school.All
students wear uniforms.For
the pre-university level students (ages 16 thorugh 18),
different uniforms identified whether they were at an academic
or sport or trade or arts school.
Our tour guide shared some concerns (paradoxes) that were
quite disturbing regarding the successful educational system.First, creating "equal"
educational opportunity throughout the country ended up lowering
standards in the countryside, not intentionally, but by the fact
that when you set up a "university" in every province, there aren't
enough top-tier academics (students and teachers) to maintain
quality at every level.Another
paradox was that there are too many people with advanced degrees,
but no jobs available.We
met an architect who worked in a Paladar.There are so many architects in his area that
the government had him come in one day a week to do architectural
work so that all the architects had some work.A third paradox of
universal education is that very few people want to go back to work
on a farm.Once
university educated, people want jobs that are commensurate with
their educational level.The
factories and fields require unskilled laborers.
Farming and Fishing
had many fishing boats and the river which entered the harbor had
many people sitting on inner tubes fishing. As we passed
through the countryside we saw only one tractor and it was being
used for harvesting sugar cane. All other farm work was
Gibara Fishing Harbor
People fishing from inner
A Television Story
Theperiod of 1960 through
1980 was a high point in Cuban economy.The Soviet Union provided extensive funding
support propping up the Cuban economy.During this period, Soviet appliances were
sold throughout the country, including vacuum tube black-and-white
TV sets.TVs were
provided very widely, and all TV stations were (still are)
constructed oil based power stations and electric distribution
systems were setup to support the growing use of appliances.
Then, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the vacuum tube
TV became a major power drain.We were told that power blackouts were common.As one measure to
alleviate the problem, the Cuban government undertook a TV swap,
providing Chinese built flat screens low wattage sets in exchange
for Soviet built vacuum tube TVs.Hence, flat screen color TVs were seen everywhere we went!
Cuba still uses oil as its primary power source, but we saw wind
turbines and understand that Cuba is making a major push in the
we experienced three blackouts which lasted only a few minutes each
during our stay.
Pay Phones and Cell Phones
Pay phones are still used in Cuba.In each town we visited we saw pay phone booths with people
using them.We only
saw limited cell phone use, usually with young people, and almost
always in the town square around a hotspot.We were told that there
is very limited Internet access and that it is always slow to load
Cuban Tourism and Caya Coco (our
As global travelers we've been
to all corners of the world, and have always found ourselves
surrounded by many American travelers.So, to be on extremely crowded tourist streets
in Cuba with only a handful of Americans was surprising.Who were all these
While Cuba may be off-limits for Americans, that's not the case for
the rest of the world.Most
tourists come from Canada, followed by the UK, Germany, the rest of
Western Europe, many Latin American countries, and Asia.While on-board our ship,
all announcements were given in English, German and French.
We were speaking with one of our bus drivers who was a lawyer
and spoke excellent English. He worked as a bus driver because
he made more money with tips paid in CUCs).He was telling us about
his family and we asked about vacations.He said that they go to Caya Coco, one of the
islands off the north coast of Cuba.He said they go on an all inclusive vacation, including
transportation from his town.He said there is a causeway to drive there.When asked about the
accommodations, he said they stay in a resort complex that has a
1000 rooms."A 1000
rooms?" we said. "Who
stays there?" "Mostly
Canadians" was his reply.Investigating
upon our return home we found that Caya Coco is an island with
dozens of beach resorts of varying prices.According to our bus driver, these are all
sold out during the winter months and much cheaper in summer.
Some Concluding Observations
We really didn't know what to expect when
we went to Cuba. We learned a lot about the history and culture:
Almost every person we spoke with was selected by the
government to meet with us. More than once we heard that no one
goes hungry, no one lives on the street, everyone has free
education and medical care, and no one gets shot.That is a lot for
people to be proud of.
We enjoyed the beautiful renovated
architecture which is occurring throughout Cuba.
There were so many billboards (and tee shirts) with
the picture ofChe
Guevara, who is considered a national hero. Billboards
only have pictures of war heroes and political
Translation: Those who die for life can not be
The countryside was very green and lush.
City streets were bustling!
We didn’t know there was a city of Guantanamo (and not
just the U.S. base).
The Malecon, the sea wall that lines Havana, was dramatic
and spectacular with the water splashing high in the air.
In every bathroom we used in Cuba, irrespective of whether it
was in the five-star hotel, someone’s home/workshop or a
Paladar, a self-covering trashcan was next to the toilet.We were instructed
never to flush toilet paper as it would clog the pipes.
Roads were of relatively high quality;very few potholes.Also, we were
surprised by the fact that we never heard a single, police, fire
or ambulance siren during our entire trip.
There are railroad tracks everywhere, but trains hardly ever
run.We were told
that if you go to the train station and buy a ticket, a bus may
come, but hardly ever a train.
We saw entire neighborhoods with absolutely no trees or
Jose Marti is the national hero of the 1895 - 1898 Cuba War of
Independence from Spain – their version of George Washington. What we call the Spanish
American War the Cubans referred to as the Spanish Cuban
War. This was their third attempt to break from
Spain. We departed from the Jose Marti
International Airport, saw monuments of him around the country,
and watched the Changing of the Guard at his tomb.
Upcoming Changes in U.S. Cuban Relations
Cuban American relations are currently in a
state of major change.The American Embassy in Havana reopened July 20, 2015
after being closed since 1961. And personal travel is
changing. For example, when we booked our trip in May,
2015 for travel in January, 2016, Americans could only
travel to Cuba using the educational groups and travel via
special charter flights.On December 17, 2015, American Airlines applied to
the U.S. government for permission to book flights for the
general public from the U.S. to Cuba (anticipating 20
flights a day).
The Cuba we visited will most likely be very
different in a just a few years.
American Embassy, Havana
As we were leaving our last hotel for the airport, the
doorman was raising the American flag.It was a perfect farewell to our trip.