A mere 90 miles from the US mainland but seemingly worlds away! There’s a mystique about Cuba! Havana, an architectural gem and culturally rich destination, was founded under a large Kapok tree. It’s coffee beans and cane sugar, salsa and jazz, its warm people and rich culture were long forbidden fruit for Americans. As regulations loosened during Obama’s presidency, regularly scheduled commercial flights from the US made it easier for Americans to discover the lure of this enticing and emerging destination. Although restrictions were still in place, Americans could join sanctioned tour groups as long as they didn’t spend dollars there.
Now fewer Americans –except those traveling via cruise ship– are venturing to Cuba. Last week there were more empty seats than occupied ones on my non-stop Delta flight from JFK to Havana. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising since the perception is that it isn’t safe for Americans to visit. The 2018 State Department level 3 warning to “reconsider travel” raised both anxiety levels and numbers of vacant airline seats. Even a flight attendant who works that route regularly confirmed the decline in travelers to the island. He said he’s never stepped off the plane there. “I’ve never seen it; I never have to use my Spanish.”
American and Canadian diplomats in Havana reported mysterious hearing and neurological ailments last year. The FBI has investigated but has not announced any findings. Diplomats, who some believe are spies hence no names revealed, were recalled and our embassy closed. This means there is not the same level of service for Americans in Cuba. The wording of the warning is confusing and has frightened even the adventurous among us.
“The headlines had a cooling effect,” said Tom Popper, President of Insight Cuba, a leading tour operator. “Perception can be more damaging than reality.”
The reality is that it’s easier than ever for Americans to visit Cuba. It’s a safe and welcoming destination for solo travelers who want to interact with the Cuban people as well as those who participate in the sanctioned People to People program or other tours.
“Travelers can book on line as well through third party at any hotel licensed by OFAC (The Office of Foreign Assets Control),” confirmed New York attorney Lindsey Frank of RBSKL Law firm, which represents the Cuban government. “US citizens can travel under any one of a dozen categories. Determine on your own and go!”
The Trump administration created a new legal category for Cuban travel called “Support for the Cuban People.” This means that Americans can participate in individual travel, book an Airbnb (casa particular) from a private owner, dine at private restaurants (paladars) in private homes and support private enterprise. That’s often the best way to experience a place anyway.
Americans traveling under this new category can purchase a visa from the airline and explore the island freely as long as you keep a record of your interactions with the Cuban people and don’t spend dollars (Euros can be exchanged easily and many taxi drivers will accept them) and don’t use credit or debit cards issued by American banks. Tour companies do business through third parties which eases logistics for the American traveler as well.
The Trump administration issued a list of hotels and restaurants that are off-limits to Americans. Included are most of the large hotels where the Cuban government has a vested interest. The US State Department website warns, “Avoid Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri.” The Cuban government has an interest in both. Having stayed at the Nacional on a previous trip to Cuba in 2000, I went back to check it out. It’s still a living museum, despite heading the American “no go” list of 37 properties. The Hotel Director, who speaks minimal English, as coy when asked about the mysterious attacks on American diplomats at the property. Through an interpreter, “We’ve had damages; we were hurt, but it’s not a huge problem. We want Americans back. There’s a lot to be discovered here.”
He is proud of the hotels legendary history especially of the well-known mob gathering there in 1946 with Al Capone and Meyer Lansky. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gabor spent their honeymoon in Room 225. More recently Beyonce was an overnight gust as was former President Jimmy Carter. It’s complete with underground tunnels and cannons by the water. The Hall of Fame Bar is a must stop for a traditional mojito. While sipping it, check out the photos organized by decade adorning the walls. The front entrance and lavish gardens resemble that of the Breakers in Palm Beach. It’s worth a drop by to walk the public spaces; the renovated guest rooms are not up to American standards.
Melia, the first foreign hotel chain on the island, now has 27 properties there, many on the US government list. I stayed at the Melia Cohiba over-looking the sea wall in Havana. One guide called the wall “the longest sofa in the world” since it’s a place where locals gather in the evening and walk to breathe the sea air.
Some residents still hang their laundry over railings outside windows lining the narrow uneven cobblestone streets. There’s still some Fidel billboards, horse drawn wagons, classic mid-century bright colored classic T-bird convertibles, dual-toned vintage Chevrolets in disrepair, old-time jukeboxes and sounds of Salsa everywhere. Remarkable Spanish architecture, kids playing baseball. At first glance not much has changed in the 18 years since I was last there. At that time I was covering the Elian Gonzales news story. But now, there are new hotels, shops and restaurants, more automobile traffic, accompanying pollution, and a more independent and entrepreneurial generation of youth.
There are countless reasons to visit. Contact with the Cuban people might include a visit to the pilot project initiated by community activists in The Holy Angels neighborhood of Old Havana. Upside down cannons –a symbol of peace–block the cobblestone streets to cars. Barber students offer free haircuts to the kids playing in the park as well as the elderly at the senior center. The private restauranteurs send food to the senior center painted pro bono by the artists. The people help one another while giving back to the community.
You can relax in the vintage magenta -colored leather barber chair and let a student practice with scissors for a free styling. Or if you feel more comfortable with experience, it’ll set you back ten cucs (approx $10). Engage with the younger generation, many of whom have embarked down the road of private enterprise not long ago prohibited in this Communist country. English has replaced Russian in the schools; many learn from watching CNN and playing computer games. When I told a young man — wearing a T-shirt with the words, “My Favorite Color is Freedom”emblazoned on it– that I lived in New York, his eyes lit up. He began talking about Harlem and its music. I asked if he had been there. His reply: “Only on the internet!”
Stop at Figaro for bold Cuban coffee. Don’t forget to sign the wall and even clip a dollar bill to the ceiling.
The new San Cristobal Visitor Center is nearby but with few American visitors in sight.
The newest attraction unveiled while I was there in late January— a towering bronze made by American sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington of a dying Cuban hero who promoted independence, Jose Marti. The original of Marti on horseback stands in Central Park in Manhattan.
After a full day in Havana, book dinner at La Covina de Lilliam, one of the oldest paladars. Lilliam’s husband, Louis, greeted me, “Welcome to our house,”directing me in to their living room and showing me his favorite antique grapevine lamp. Lilliam Dominguez Palenzuela, a passionate woman in her mid-70’s cooks for guests until midnight and then watches cooking shows on TV before retiring. That not only inspires creative ideas like homemade blue cheese ice cream, but “keeps the standard of quality of the house,” Louis explained. Not only was the meal, especially the malanga fritters, the best I had in Havana, but the pianist and garden setting — complete with a brook stocked with fish — contributed to a relaxing ambiance.
A private driver/guide, who also owns apartments listed on AirBnB, has seen both his businesses decline since 2016. “We don’t like Trump,” he told me on the way to the airport. “He keeps Americans away.”
But the reality is that Cuba remains a safe, legal, inexpensive and fascinating destination for Americans.
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