My Experiences of Visiting Cuba Twice

I have to admit that my knowledge and understanding of Cuba prior to visiting there was quite limited growing up in the United States. What I did know was pretty much the American historical version of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, some things about Fidel Castro and that Cuban cigars were famous but that they could not be imported to the US. And of course there was the music and cars.  Other than that call me clueless…

Cuba had always been on my wanderlust list for many reasons.  It was so close to the United States, a ninety-minute flight from Miami so why wouldn’t I go there?  I have always been fascinated by this island country that has been so closed off from the US and of course most importantly the American cars that have been preserved and cherished in Cuba. Growing up in Detroit I love cars to this day and couldn’t wait to take a ride in a hot pink 1950’s era convertible Chevrolet.

As of now I have been to Cuba on two different occasions. Amazing what a difference three years makes. First time was 2016. The second time was 2019.

In 2016 getting a decent flight connection to Cuba from Arizona was challenging at best. There was no guarantee that you would even get into the country once you arrived.  Your group had to be volunteering and bring donations.  On the way back to the States we sat on the tarmac all loaded and ready to go for hours before taking off. There was one conveyer to load the luggage for all the flights.  And remember people from all over the world had been going to Cuba for years, just not Americans.  One of the most interesting timing things to me about the 2016 adventure was our group was there one week prior to the Rolling Stones free concert in Cuba and the US Embassy was just in the process of becoming fully functional again.

Fast forward to 2019, booked a flight on Delta from Phoenix to Cuba no issues with one stop in Atlanta. Received the tourist visa slip via mail ahead of time and the only volunteer work required was stopping at Fusterlandia the work of Jose Fuster one of Cuba’s most celebrated artists to see his dream like creation.

In 2016 the Cuban government was working very hard to stop the subsidies for food to the Cuban people.  It was a very challenging time and many Cubans were not happy about it as it was all they had ever known.

In 2019 I swear you would have thought we were travelling on an island that was anywhere in the Caribbean and not in “Cuba.”  The country had continued to morph away from the traditional communist model, had become more and more entrepreneurial and was really easy to travel around.

Cars in Cub

American cars are considered the family jewels in Cuba. The cars are handed down from generation to generation. Families that own the cars are incredible mechanics.  It is impossible to get American parts for the cars in Cuba. American parts were originally banned by Castro in 1959. So the cars have all sorts of engines in them other than American as they are now 60 plus years old.  The cars run on European, Russian and lawnmower engines.  And yes, I got my ride in my hot pink Chevrolet Bel Air (1953?) convertible driven by a young Cuban man wearing the standard Cuban Taxi driver uniform in his tight black pants, white shirt, gold chain and slicked back hair topped off with a fedora. A very fun way to spend a day and if you are a classic car fanatic there are great photo opportunities. The taxi drivers love having pics taken with their cars.

Because of Cuba’s focus on tourism, apparently the taxi drivers earn more than the doctors, especially with tips.

Rum in Cuba

I barely drank prior to going to Cuba. Seriously! My family and friends rarely saw me with a drink in my hand. Maybe a glass of wine once a month? On the first trip to Cuba, the tour included a fair amount of alcohol, Mojitos breakfast lunch and dinner. It was way too much alcohol and sugar for me.  So I started ordering straight rum and my new found hobby was born in Cuba.  Finding the perfect rum. What a lovely journey it has been.  Cuba is definitely the place to learn about rum.

People in Cuba

Both in 2016 and 2019 the Cuban people I interacted with “loved” Americans. They were happy to have us there, wanting to speak English, Spanish or Spanglish.  Some of the guides would and wanted to talk politics.  Others wanted nothing to do with politics.

One guide was pretty funny although he would not think so.  His father had been very high up in Castro’s government and he had been raised to think that all American’s were evil.  He was a very knowledgeable guide but had no qualms telling you about how horrible everything and everybody was in the United States.  When I asked him his favorite place he said New York. When I asked him about his children, he said they were living in the United States.  And for the grand finale when I asked him where he was getting his hip replacement surgery done, he said that a group of doctors come to Cuba from the United States every year to volunteer and perform surgery for free.  Guess who was first on the list for the coming year for hip replacement because of his connections?  Sometimes it is just better to say “oh wow” and move on.

A taste of Cuban culture

I have now seen the Tropicana show two times.  Both times it was fabulous. The Tropicana show morphed out of a casino and cabaret show starting on December 30, 1939.  The show actually takes place outside in a tropical garden.  It highlights Cuban culture with live music, singing and dancing.  You can also eat dinner there with rum included.

The music, the singing, the costumes the dancers are equal to and or better than any Broadway or Las Vegas show.

Food in Cuba

Food was definitely more abundant and better in 2019 than 2016.  We ate in a number of “Paladars” both times. These are small, private restaurants that are inside homes in Havana.  The menus are written on chalkboards as they continue to change depending on what ingredients are available, many from the black market. The one food you can count on is flan for dessert. Loved all the different flavors and creativity out of necessity. Never ate the same thing twice.

Money in Cuba

There are two different currencies used in Cuba. One for Americans (CUC Cuban Convertible Peso) and one for everyone else (CUP Cuban Peso Nacional). American credit and debit cards will simply not work. Bring cash. You can use dollars or exchange them if not accepted. Don’t plan on the CUC having any value outside of Cuba.  All because of American banking laws regarding Cuba,

A very special place in Cuba

One of my very favorite places outside of Havana was Varadero. It is a beautiful beach resort town. Varadero is also known as the Blue Beach because of its clear and calm water. The tip of the peninsula is the northern most point of Cuba.  It is only 311 miles from Florida.

I stayed at the Melia las Americas an all-inclusive resort on the beach. For those that like to photograph sunsets and the ocean Varadero is the perfect place.

Don’t know if you can tell, but I loved visiting Cuba both times. It is an easy flight if you are coming from the United States, the food, culture people and beaches are great and different enough that I felt like I had gone on an adventure very far away. I hope that you will get to experience the Cuban culture and people one day.

Laura Ziff

Laura's passion in life is travel and photography. She is excited to share her adventures with all of you. She loves to travel to "conquer her fears," meet new people and continue learning.