Hear about cruising to Cuba as the Amateur Traveler talks again to Dave Grenewetzki about his trip on a ship-based People to People trip to Cuba.
Cuba has been in the news and a lot of things are changing with U.S. relations to the country, but there are still restrictions on how Americans can travel to the island. This makes options more limited and many of the options available are more expensive. Dave talks about a trip that he took that was an affordable trip around the island on a cruise ship stopping in the old Spanish capital of Santiago, in the current capital of Havana and in the more industrial city of Cienfuegos.
Dave’s trip was guided by Cuba instructors and included the opportunity to meet with both the American representative on the island and with a retired member of the Castro government. They visited San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders made their charge and the barracks that were the site of the first unsuccessful revolt led by Castro.
Cuba is more than just history and politics. Dave tells us of an island filled with colorful art, ubiquitous music, and numerous bars with mojitos and “Hemingway drank here” signs. We talk about the old cars and the older buildings in various states of repair. He shares his favorite museums and plazas. His trip included a beach/dive day as well.
Throughout the conversation we talk about issues you need to know about money (2 currencies), ATMs (don’t count on it), cell coverage (not yet), medical insurance (need it), and travel insurance (required).
Cuba is a country in the midst of change. Cuba is learning capitalism but still has a lot to learn in Dave’s experience. But whether it is artists, musicians, or baseball players, the Cuban people are the country’s greatest asset.
Come learn about this beautiful island before it looks like every other island in the Caribbean.
David’s photos of Cuba
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Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 509. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about beautiful beaches and historic plazas, musicians and artists, old cars and mojitos as we go to Cuba.
Chris: Today’s episode is brought to you by Select Italy. Select Italy designs custom itineraries and books a whole range of products and services including fascinating tours, romantic weddings, or honeymoon trips. Along with ticketing services for museums and musical events in Italy, visit selectitaly.com to learn more.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. We’ll hear more from our sponsor, Select Italy, in a while, but first, let’s talk about Cuba. I’d like to welcome back to the show Dave Grenewetzki who’s come to talk to us today about Cuba. Dave, welcome back to the show.
Dave: Great to talk to you again, Chris.
Chris: And I say welcome back to the show. Those of you who are longtime listeners may recognize his voice as being on a couple of episodes we’ve done, well three episodes we’ve done, one on India, one on Iceland, and one on the Nakasendo Trail in Japan. But today you are talking about someplace that is really in the news a lot, which is Cuba, which is all opened up and easy for Americans to go to again, right?
Dave: Well not quite the case. I think because it’s in the news, everybody thinks that but the interesting thing is that Cuba still is the only country in the world that’s off-limits to US tourists. So you can’t go there as a tourist. You can only go there for something called “purposeful travel.” They can make that look a little bit like tourism though, so you’d have to be part of the 12 categories of special visitation that allows you to go to Cuba. So if you’re in a sports delegation, or a delegation of the arts, or something like that, that’s one way to do it, but I did and what’s called the people-to-people program. So it’s basically an educational program where we learn all about Cuba, Cuban people, Cuban history, and also do some things that, if you squint real hard, look like tourism. So we visited a lot of interesting places.
Chris: Technically, since this is a ban by the Department of Treasury or through the Department of Treasury, I think you can go…
Chris: Is it? I think through Treasury.
Dave: Maybe it is.
Chris: I will look that up while we are talking but you’re allowed to go but not spend any money unless you go through one of these programs, and if you could figure out how to do that, good luck to you. We actually looked at doing the Amateur Traveler trip this year to Cuba and the problem is that with most of the programs there is an additional cost once you are doing a program that is approved for the people-to-people, for instance, which is what we would have been doing. And I think we were looking at a trip that was $1,000 per person if you were outside the US, and if you’re an American citizen was about $3,000 per person. You actually found a different kind of tour that is closer to the kind that I could afford with my budget.
Dave: Yeah, my wife and I have been wanting to go to Cuba for a long time and when we heard all this stuff in the news recently, we decided we better get there before it changes into Miami Beach again. We can talk later about why I don’t think that’s coming very soon, but we looked at the same kind of tours you did, saw they were $3,000 or $4,000 for a week, and just randomly, I subscribed to a lot of travel-related email sites and websites and I got one for a cruise that goes around the island of Cuba. It’s an eight-day, seven-night cruise as they call it. It stops in five or six places, and it’s a people-to-people certified program. And it came in at about $1,100 or $1,200 hundred dollars a person including everything, including tips, including drinks, including all the tours and everything else. You just had to get yourself to Montego Bay, Jamaica. That’s where it started and ended.
Chris: And who was running this particular cruise?
Dave: Well the cruise company what’s called Celestyal Cruises, but most of the people on the boat were not Americans. They were coming from…a lot of Canadians, a lot of Europeans who have been coming to Cuba for a long time because they don’t have the same restrictions we do. But there was a subgroup on that boat run by a company called Legendary Journeys who was the tour operator and put us on the boat with the rest of the people. So we had kind of a parallel universe that we were living in while the rest of the people were on a standard cruise around the island of Cuba.
Chris: Excellent and by the way I was right. It is the Department of Treasury. So tell us more about your itinerary and what your impressions are of Cuba now that you have had a chance to go.
Dave: Sure, so the itinerary was pretty simple. We went counter-clockwise around the island. We left for Montego Bay. We went to Santiago De Cuba which was the first town we stopped in, and we can talk about that a little bit later. Then we had, what they call a day at sea the next day. So we were going all the way around the northern side of the island to get to Havana which took a full day of sailing. We spent two days in Havana, then we went around the eastern edge into a little town called Maria La Gorda. Then continuing around we spent a day Cienfuegos and then we headed back to Montego Bay. So it’s kind of a taste of Cuba from the edges, so we saw only things that you could see in day trips from the coast.
Chris: Now, it’s a long, thin island. Is there anything you can’t see in the day trip from the coast in Cuba?
Dave: Well from what I’ve seen and when I think about going back there, I’d like to go to the interior. There are some mountainous areas and some beautiful areas where they grow coffee and the famous tobacco that are stars in the Cuban cigars. Looks like the interior of the island is really interesting, so I think there are opportunities to go there, just didn’t happen on this kind of taste of Cuba trip that we did around the outside.
Chris: Excellent. So let’s go into a little more detail. Your first stop you say was, well not counting Montego Bay which…
Dave: A town called Santiago De Cuba.
Chris: On the southern coast.
Dave: Yeah, which was the capital of the island when the Spanish were there. When the Spanish came in, the Spanish made their first stop in a year that’s familiar to all American school children which is 1492 and the so-called European discovery of the island was by none other than Christopher Columbus and so it was a Spanish colony for quite a few centuries after that. Santiago De Cuba was the place that was the capital of it in those days and so it’s a very scenic and quaint little town. I don’t know how little it is. Havana has 2 million people and this is substantially smaller. It’s famous for a number of things. One is that it has the famous San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders ran up to liberate the island which is in high dispute. The Cubans don’t believe that the Americans were required to end the Spanish-American war. In fact, they call it the Spanish-Cuban American war, but the US did come in at the end of a long conflict and kind of ended things in six or eight weeks from what I understand.
The Cubans were not that happy to have that intervention especially since the Americans and Spain negotiated Cuba’s future without involving Cuba in the process. So it’s very hard to talk about Cuba without kind of diving in the politics and I’ll try to not do that. I think of this more as history than politics. But we did visit San Juan Hill, so that was where, again, the battles that the Rough Riders were involved in occurred. We also visited another really interesting and famous place for the Cuban people, a place called the Moncada Barracks, which were a barracks that the Cuban army under Batista had an outpost. And this was the place which Fidel Castro mounted his first attack on the Batista government in 1953 and basically he got slapped. It was a very unprepared battle to mount at that point, and a number of the Cuban freedom fighters were killed and Castro and a number of people went to jail for quite a while and that was in ‘53. But that was the start of the Cuban Revolution. They called this whole area the Cradle of the Revolution even though it was kind of an inauspicious start.
Chris: And what did you see in San Diego these days?
Dave: The barracks were still there. We went to the barracks. It’s been preserved as a museum of the revolution now and the walls are pockmarked with bullet holes and all the rest of it. The old town is quite beautiful and seems to be in much better repair than much of Cuba that we saw. There are many pedestrian avenues that you can walk around and beautiful, very colorful shops. San Juan Hill has been preserved as a memorial with a number of plaques and cannons up there guarding it. It’s clear that it’s the high point of the area in terms of military access. It is the high ground. We also saw a beautiful square called Cespedes Square, which is kind of all the major Cuban towns are built around the cathedral in a beautiful square and this was no different. We enjoyed a morning tour on a bus and then walking around the town for the rest of the day. One of things that we were a little bit surprised at just because we’re Americans that came in with some preconceived notions is that there were no restrictions on us at all. We went wherever we wanted, talk to whoever we wanted. We were told that one thing to be careful of was to not take pictures of soldiers or policemen without their permission which seems like a pretty good idea in most places.
Chris: Yeah, I think that that’s not a bad idea. Even in the US, I wouldn’t necessarily do that.
Dave: Yeah, but this was the first place that we encountered the money which was interesting. They have two forms of currency there. The Cuban peso which is what regular Cuban folks use. Then they have another thing called a CUC which is a Cuban Convertible Peso, and that is tied at a one-to-one to the US dollar. So dollars aren’t allowed there but they have something that’s a faux dollar. The problem is that if you bring euros or Canadian money, you can exchange those for CUCs at a one-to-one US dollar ratio, but if you bring US dollars, you get charged with a 13% penalty. So my suggestion is if you’re a European traveler and have an envelope full of euros, that’s what you should bring there because you’ll get essentially 10% better exchange rate on your money. But all the shops will take both CUCs and pesos and I think one of the little games that you also need to pay attention to is that the Cuban peso is pegged at 24 to the CUC, so a lot of prices are listed in pesos and if you pay in CUCs, you’ve just given them a 24 times upgrade on their pricing.
Chris: Now, you’ve mentioned, for instance, bringing an envelope of cash. One of the things that’s changing rapidly is how connected Cuba is to the rest of the world. Cellphone systems, banks, credit cards, ATMs. At the time that you were there, I’m guessing you were not able in general to get money out of ATMs.
Dave: Yeah, there are no ATMs that will service a US based credit card. That’s still in place.
Chris: Although it’s changing as my understanding is, it’s coming so by the time you listen to the show, if you listen to it a year from now, read up because they may indeed have changed. I know the cellphones, for instance, is just changing. One of the US carriers has announced they’re going into Cuba at least in the roaming agreements.
Dave: Yeah, that is indeed the case.
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Dave: Internet is another interesting thing, so essentially you don’t find internet in a coffee shop or in a hotel. There are some public squares in each major town where there are state-sponsored wireless internet and you have to buy a scratch-off card which gives you access to it. Luckily we could always pop back onto our ship and get the internet in order to get those valuable emails that we just can’t seem to live without when we’re out all day. But finding internet on the street is not something that you should expect to happen. One other interesting thing is that the government of Cuba requires you to have several forms of insurance when you arrive. One is you have to have a specific health insurance policy that they direct you to which cost us 49 bucks ahead which is a health insurance policy regardless of whether you can show them you have health insurance, and you have to have a travel insurance policy that will get you out of the country should all else fail. So those are things that you need to show and also when we got off, every time we left the boat in any port, there was an legion of nurses there who would scan our foreheads with an infrared thermometer.
Chris: To see if you were sick.
Dave: Yeah, people with fevers literally were not able to get off the boat. It was something that I haven’t run into before.
Chris: I’ve run into that in China where we couldn’t leave. It was the opposite. It was the time of SARS and they didn’t put a thermometer on you but they walked you in front of a thermal detection screen and basically if you were showing as hot you were isolated. You were not allowed to go anywhere.
Dave: Yeah, so this was interesting that we would parade past a bunch of nurses and we always had to have our Cuban identity card in our passport with us at all times and those had to be shown. Every port was a new entry into the country essentially so you had to go in and out that way. The other thing that’s interesting is that we have a letter from the people-to-people agency that handled all this that we are instructed to carry with us for the next five years whenever we travel. If you have to explain why you were showing up as having been in Cuba that this is here I get out of jail card.
Chris: My take is, from at least the current administration, you probably don’t need it. Of course that could all change in November because I think the Obama administration’s already announced pretty much they don’t care. But they obviously can’t change the law. So they can they can change some of the enforcement but not the law.
Dave: Yeah, that’s an interesting thing and when we get to Havana I’ll talk to you a little bit about the fact that we actually got to meet with the former Cuban foreign minister and with the US ambassador to Cuba who’s not really an ambassador yet. He’s the chargé d’affaires but is referred to as the ambassador and got out some interesting insight about what’s coming.
Chris: But before we get there, let’s finish up with Santiago. A couple of questions. You mentioned that Santiago was in a little better state which sort of begs the question I think a lot of us who have looked into going to Cuba…we’ve heard about the old cars that they still have. We’ve heard that a lot of Cuba could use a new coat of paint.
Dave: That’s exactly right. I would say on the tourist-facing places. So near the ports both in Havana and Santiago, not so much in Cienfuegos, which we’ll talk about later, they have given it that coat of paint. They have cleaned up things and I think they are thinking ahead to upcoming influx of tourists. But once you get several blocks deep into the cities, it’s a lot older and in less repair. I would say one of the people there told us that it reminded them of Europe after the war. That there were a lot of stores with no goods in them, a lot of buildings that were in need of repair and children playing in rubble, and it felt that way. They were not depressed people. Everybody we met seemed to be happy and excited that things were changing and for the most part they clearly could use some more money in infrastructure. But everything that was there seem to be at least visitable. I’m not sure that there are a lot of places to stay. They just recently have opened up home stays. There’s a special sign that you could see in a building for home stays.
They’ve also recently opened up essentially private enterprise. So anybody that has a doorway that opens onto a street has a shop, and it could be a shop at the bottom of a stairwell even. The problem is they don’t have a lot of goods. There’s a lot of handcraft goods. Because of the embargo, they don’t have a lot of trading partners in the world. The way that it was described to us is that the embargo which went in in ‘61 I think, basically limited trade from Cuba with America and with any company or country that did more than 10% of their business with America. So that takes a lot of opportunity away. So handicraft seem to be a strong item there. The one thing is you don’t see stores full of Chinese goods like you do in most other tourist markets. So interesting view of private enterprise there. It’s now allowed at some level.
Chris: Excellent. Anything else we want to talk about with Santiago in particular before we move on up the coast?
Dave: No, I think it was a good first stop for us. The pedestrian boulevards we’re really fun. Walking down the pedestrian boulevards and that’s where I got to see what I came to think of as full-contact dominoes. Dominoes is a huge sport there and there are four people around those dominoes tables and they are screaming, and yelling, and hollering, and slamming dominoes on the table. I wish I knew more about the game and that I spoke Spanish because it looked really interesting. I stood there and watched, and they looked up and winked so I don’t know if it was quite a show for me or not but it was pretty fun to believe that dominoes was actually a spectator sport.
Chris: Excellent. This is along the Malecon.
Dave: No, this was along the walking streets in Santiago, the first place.
Chris: So more downtown, okay.
Dave: Yeah, right on our first day on the island we were exposed to that.
Chris: Okay, I thought we were out by the beach. Okay, excellent. Where to next?
Dave: So next, we spent a day on the boat and one of the interesting things that makes this a people-to-people experience is we traveled with two young professors from the University of Havana. Julio Rojas, who was a professor of philosophy and Jorge Arocha, who was a professor history, they’re about 30 years old so they were born after the revolution. They’re really interesting guys and their job was to tell us everything they could about Cuba. I had an interesting moment of bonding with Jorge. When I got on the boat I was wearing a Golden State Warriors t-shirt and he immediately came over and embraced me and said he was a giant warriors fan. We talked basketball for the rest of the trip and he told me his goal in life was to get to see an NBA game. Apparently he was a point guard on the University of Havana team. He said he didn’t quite have the skills of Steph Curry but he certainly enjoyed what he could see of the games over there. So we had these two guys with us who every day, depending on the other activities, would present lectures to us. Everything from visual arts to cigars to the history of rum, a three-parter on just the history of Cuba from the Spanish to the revolution, the flora and fauna, musical instruments, just all kinds of stuff. So we really got to know these guys and they would travel with us during the day also when we went into the city, so we always had some really interesting guys along with us to chat about what was going on. Very friendly, very approachable, very good guys.
Chris: And I don’t have a picture yet for how large the boat was that you were on.
Dave: It was a pretty good-sized boat. I think it had 1,100 or 1,200 passengers but there were only 90 of us that were in this program. We were kind of a subgroup of the major thing.
Chris: So everybody else was not an American and so they were less restricted in their travel.
Dave: Yes, but the lectures were open to everybody and we quite often had people that would come in from the other groups because these guys were spellbinders. They really gave us a good intro to things and they were very clear. They would say it many, many times that, “You’re hearing our side of the story.” They said, “You guys have heard a lot of other things. We’re going to tell you our side and probably realize that the truth is somewhere in between those two things.” They were very a very open about their life in Cuba and how they view their life in Cuba but they made sure that we understood that it was their view of the world based on what they’ve seen.
Chris: And you mentioned their view of the world and one thing I forgot to ask, looking at the map, I noticed that the closest you got to the American base on Cuba Guantanamo Bay was Santiago De Cuba. Did it come up in conversation what the Cubans felt about?
Dave: Yeah, it did as a matter of fact. In fact, when we met with Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who’s the acting ambassador and the chargé d’affaires, somebody specifically asked him, “So what’s the deal with Guantanamo?” And he’s clearly a career diplomat. Every question, words were chosen carefully, very smart guy. This is his third posting to Cuba. And he said, “Well here’s the interesting thing. For the Cubans on the Cuban side of the table, the return of Guantanamo is a must. And on the American side of the table, it’s not on the table.” So that is clearly a bone of contention that’s going to have to be sorted out. We did not ask the Cubans about it. We were gently told that having hardcore political conversations was not good for the Cuban people to do in public. So we didn’t push those things. We certainly learned about the history of how the Guantanamo ended up on our hands, and it’s clear that they would certainly think that this giant chunk of their island that’s foreign property is definitely a problem, but ambassador DeLaurentis is the one that really laid it on the line and said, from the American point of view, not on the table. They’re clearly shutting down the prison in Guantanamo, but as a base, US’ idea is that it will remain in base. The Cubans would very much like to see that change.
Chris: Where to next?
Dave: Next is Havana, Cuba, and we spent two full days and a night parked at the main dock in the center of Havana which is 20 feet away from stepping into the city. The very first thing that happened before we got off the boat was we had an hour and a half long chat with a guy named Jose Raul Viera Linares who was the first deputy foreign minister from the ‘80s to the ‘90s in Cuba. A very, very interesting guy who was there during the revolution who has represented Cuba all over the world at different posts and he was basically talking to us about life in Cuba and the changes that were expected to come out of all this. And they’re very fiercely proud of their way of life in Cuba. They would like it to have a few more bells and whistles that would come from open trade.
We got the feeling that there is a lot of, at least respect for the revolution and for what Castro did and throwing off the bonds as they have of first the Spanish, then the Americans, and then the Russians came in and were their buddies for a while, and then they left them high and dry. So they’re very resilient people and deputy foreign minister Linares was a very interesting voice in this whole thing. He was one of the educated people that when Fidel took over…this was a story I really liked. That Fidel decided that an educated populace was needed and he sent 250,000, I believe this is the number, young people into the hills to bring literacy to Cuba and they quite literally went from literacy rate of like 8% to 10% to over 90% in the course of 18 to 24 months. So it was a very incredible public works program, again. This is what we were told by our young professor friends, but Linares was one of the guys that was actually involved in that. He and his wife went out to the field and did that sort of stuff, so quite interesting.
Chris: Well, the interesting thing is, to put that in the historical context, is as communism or socialism, depending on where you put them on a scale, came into other countries, into China or into Cambodia would probably be the worst examples of where the opposite happened, where there was a backlash against those people who were educated. Vietnam as well. At the time this is going on where they’re trying to get a higher education rate at the same time that some of the other countries that are, in what we as Americans would say, the same part of the social spectrum we’re doing the exact opposite.
Dave: Yeah, it’s quite an impressive feat.
Chris: I think that just goes to show that things are always a little more complicated than you think.
Dave: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. So our first day in Havana, we had about a three-hour walking tour in the morning that started at the ship and went through several of the beautiful squares around town. And again, being close to the water and being close to where the tourists came, this was all be very, very beautiful territory. Beautiful Spanish colonial buildings, several big cathedrals in beautiful open Spanish type squares, lots of music being played and in the street and in the clubs, lots of places claiming that Hemingway drank there, which may be true. There clearly is a Hemingway industry that’s being built up in Cuba and we as, I hate to say tourist, a people-to-people program, we felt it necessary to have a mojito in several of these places and it’s fun. There’s a lot of Hemingway walls with pictures of him, Hemingway dined here, that sort of thing. You look at Cuba and think of it 50 years ago and it seems like that would have been a pretty good place for a hard drinking author to live. Nice weather, nice people and tropical drinks. Hard to go wrong for a guy like Hemingway and he is an industry and it’s fun to get around and see some of the places. I’m now actually motivated to pick up some of the older Hemingway books. In fact, there’s also a Graham Greene book about Cuba that looks like a lot of fun so I’m anxious to do it, but it was basically a day of walking.
Chris: But you were just doing the drinking for educational purposes.
Dave: Absolutely, the people-to-people-to-mojito tour. We spent the day walking around, both the morning session, and afternoon session walking around town, and seeing the Cuban people at work and at play, talked to a number of the merchants. The foreign minister told us that they are having to learn all kinds of new things. They don’t know how to promote themselves. He was just amazed that he went to a business and they had a brochure. He had never seen a brochure before for or a business in Cuba. They were basically having to learn all of the dirty habits from the US and a self-promotion apparently is one of them so it was really fun. Like I said, beautiful squares, beautiful neighborhoods and as you get a little farther away I think you start to feel a little bit more of the real Cuba, the narrower streets, the slightly less kept cars and businesses, but everybody has a wrought iron balcony. People and laundry are out on the balconies at all time. People are very friendly.
My wife and I did a lot of hiking around without the group. There are some areas that I think in other parts of the world would have made you uncomfortable but there it seemed very open and friendly, and people were welcoming, and would ask us where we were from. And we learned many years ago usually when somebody asks us where are we from, we would say California rather than the USA. Sometimes they don’t like the USA but everybody likes California, so that’s a trick we learned years ago, but here people were fine talking about America and they would want to know what we thought of Cuba. So what we would tell them we think it’s beautiful, the people are nice, the food is interesting. What’s really interesting about Cuba is that it’s just such a mixture of all kinds of ethnicities, and accents, and skin color, and food. There were the original Indians that inhabited the island. They’re called the Tainos, and then Spanish came in, and then slaves were brought in from Africa to harvest the crops. They’ve mixed together seems like in a very peaceful way and from everything we’ve seen it looks like it’s a pretty harmonious culture. Again, we’re getting the tourist’s eye view of everything but it’s in that the mixture has brought out the best in everybody’s cultures.
Chris: Are there any particular sites that really stood out for you in Havana?
Dave: The big squares, the Plaza De San Francisco. Also the Plaza de Armas was beautiful. The Cathedral of Havana is another beautiful square and just strolling down the street and seeing people selling their artwork, seeing pictures of Che Guevara everywhere. Che is an amazing hero of the people there. And of course, I think the one site that as an American is mind-boggling are all the 1950s cars that are running around. One tour guide had the great comment which was, “We don’t have mechanics, we have magicians.” Because apparently there was an auto ferry from the US that brought cars there many years ago and the cars are still there now. What I’ve been told is most of them are not running with their original engines. They have brushed motors in them. But these guys do have home factories, little forges, sand casting forges and they do make parts.
And frankly they’re very lucky that they have ‘50s-era cars because they’re so simple that they actually can be maintained. They mostly serve as taxis now, so you can rent one of those for probably 50 CUCs for a half day to have somebody drive you around in an open top 57 Chevy. It’s pretty amazing. We also went to a big musical show one night. They offered us the opportunity to visit a couple. One of them was a big Vegas-style nightclub show which is very reminiscent of how it was during the day there, but we opted to go see a bunch of the members of the Buena Vista Social Club during a real Afro-Cuban variety show which was really, really fun. It was a big night club atmosphere, a lot of mojitos flowing, and just amazing music from some folks. I just hope when I’m 85 years old I can dance like these guys were. Must keep them young to get out on that stage every day. Just the ambiance of the city I think is what made it so fun and interesting for us.
Chris: Excellent, and then from there you went to…?
Dave: From there we had basically a beach day which I suppose is required on a cruise ship. So we’re scuba divers so we signed up for a scuba trip. I desperately wanted a “scuba Cuba” t-shirt, but they didn’t exist.
Chris: You can make those, I’m sure.
Dave: I’m sure there’s an opportunity for that, so that was basically a beach day. Some people took an opportunity to visit a huge national park that was over in that area, Maria La Gorda. We opted for the scuba diving and then got back on the boat and headed to basically our last stop of the trip.
Chris: Before you get back on the boat, you’ve scuba dived in many places. How was the scuba diving?
Dave: Well you’re going to cause me to have confession time, here.
Chris: That’s what I was afraid of.
Dave: I came down with the virus and I actually couldn’t clear my ears. So my dive was about 20 feet deep while my wife actually got down with the rest of the group and had a great dive. She said it was a very nice dive, what they call a wall dive so she was hovering along the wall. It’s supposed to be very beautiful there. I totally regret that I had to abort my dive but there was really no way I could go on but Vicky had a great dive and said it was beautiful. Didn’t see a lot of big animals or any spectacular sea life but just beautiful clear very, very blue water.
Dave: So our last stop before heading to Montego Bay was a town called Cienfuegos. And Cienfuegos felt a little bit more as an industrial town than some of the ones we’ve been before. There was an area very central to the tobacco and sugar cane production in the olden days, and it’s much more of a blue collar town. And so what we visited in Cienfuegos was quite interesting. They have a number of projects sponsored by the Cuban government to try to keep kids on the straight and narrow. We went to a graphic arts collective where local artists get together, work on their artwork, and then they have printing presses to do offset printing and also screen printing. And what they do two days a week is have a group of kids with Duane syndrome come in there, and they’re given exposure to art, and they’ve talked to several kids that had been going there for 10 years or so. It’s a very bright spot in their day in this otherwise very workaday town.
So that was fun. And then we went to another neighborhood where they had created another artist collective but it was for art and music, and it was an area where there were a number of Cuban equivalent of gangs of kids that have now, according to what we were told, anyhow have been brought into the world of art and music. And there was kind of a street fair going on when we got there and there was a lot of music, a lot of really interesting art. Art is very central to the Cuban experience. We visited the National Art Museum and saw not only classical Cuban art but very much contemporary art, and I think that they’re keeping up with the rest of the world in their artistic abilities. So Cienfuegos was a little bit more of a workaday town although there was a beautiful big square there like there is everywhere, a big cathedral, and also a huge theater that was built there many, many years ago that holds almost a 1,000 people and looks like a classical European opera house on the inside. So there are surprises around every corner in Cuba.
Chris: Excellent. Your biggest surprise with Cuba?
Dave: One of the things that I was surprised was that, because they don’t know anything about promotion, when we were in Havana walking around looking for a place to eat lunch, there are young men, hawkers, trying to get you to come into their restaurant and I kind of was joking around with this one guy and I said, “So is this food really good?” And he said, “Well, it’s not the best, but it’s pretty good,” which I thought was the Cuban promotion and we had lunch there and I would say he was right on the money. Not the best but it was a decent meal. It was filling, let’s say.
Chris: Well, we’ve done one other show on Cuba but it’s been a while which is why I wanted to do this one. Also you did a different approach to the island that our last guest. But I know that one of the quotes that came out of that one was that they say that the first three casualties of the revolution were breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I don’t know if that has gotten better now. I know that part of that was just having the infrastructure in place to get fresh ingredients on a regular and reliable basis. With the restaurant meals you had, was that sort of a typical meal experienced?
Dave: Well I think you’re going to get beans and rice with everything and plantains, that sort of stuff. Beef is not big on the menu. They told us beef is saved for pregnant mothers and people that are sick. Chicken is the staple. In the cities at least, which is kind of all we were, we didn’t see anything that looked like a shortage of food. Although wages there are amazingly low so these professors make 24 dollars a month but everybody in Cuba is given a ration book which they can use to pay for the requirements of life, so I think nobody is starving, but I think also nobody’s doing all that well at least among the common folk. We had a number of meals and everything seemed to be fine. Nothing extravagant, that’s for sure. And we ate at private restaurants, not state run restaurants. I’m not sure how you tell the difference although in looking at the bill there was a special charge on there that when I showed it to our guide she said, “Oh yeah, that’s a private restaurant.” That’s how you can tell. They slap a service charge on which apparently is not part of the state run restaurant de rigueur.
Chris: What was the prettiest spot that you were in in Cuba?
Dave: Yeah, I think the Plaza De Nuevo which is in Havana. It’s the biggest of all the plazas. Everything is very well maintained around it. There was also an art exhibit of kind of a six-foot high Chihuahuas that had each been painted by a different artist. We saw something like that in San Francisco where they did it with hearts.
Chris: Sure, San Francisco had hearts, Chicago had bulls, San Jose had sharks, but Chihuahuas was not what I was expecting.
Dave: Yeah, and it just made it very colorful and very beautiful. In the redeveloped areas, the colorful streets are just what you what Cuba to be. And it’s in stark contrast to some of the other neighborhoods where it’s a bit more drab, but still, I think those big plazas and that Plaza De Nuevo was probably my favorite.
Chris: What time of year was your trip? I don’t think I caught that.
Dave: No, it was just in February of 2016, so just a few weeks ago.
Chris: And this was a good time of year to go?
Dave: Well it was beautiful for us. It was not too hot and there was no rain at all, so for us it turned out to be a beautiful trip. We were expecting more rain, but it didn’t happen. That pesky weather pattern seemed to be changing everywhere and we got caught in a good batch of weather in Cuba.
Chris: Excellent. One warning you would give? We talked about the money situation and the convertible pesos. Anything else that people should know before they go?
Dave: Well unless you’re on a ship, I would say tell the folks back home not to expand daily reports from the trip because communication, at least at the time we went, and as you mentioned it’s changing. I think Verizon announced a roaming service coming in soon, but it’s not a place that communication is easy, so I would think that’s the case. And back to the money, bring something other than dollars if you have them. I know a bunch of people on the trip were better prepared than we were and brought euros. And it’s a 10% discount essentially.
Chris: Before we get to our last three questions, anything else we should know before we go to Cuba?
Dave: No, I would just keep an eye on the state of US-Cuban relations. It’s changing all the time. One of the things that we learned from the ambassador is, and this is why I don’t think things are going to change that quickly, is because what the President has done is by executive order and he can’t change the laws. And the embargo was an act of Congress so that is not going to get changed. He’s certainly having enough trouble with Congress on other things that the embargo is not going to go away. In fact, the ambassador told us that they’re pushing forward on everything they can do right now in order to get the ball far enough down the court that regardless of what happens in the next election, that will be hard to undo. So as a matter of fact he doesn’t think there will be an ambassador for a while because the investor also requires congressional approval, so he may sitting in that chair for quite a while. But without the embargo lifted, building of the infrastructure down there is going to be a very slow go and that means that even though lots and lots of tourists are going to start showing up there, I don’t know where they’re going to stay. So I think the home stay program is really going to have to be expanded, but clearly you’re not going to be in a Hilton for quite a while.
Chris: Well we should say that there are a lot of tourists already going to Cuba from Canada and from Europe. It’s not like there are no tourists going, although a lot of those are starting to go to resorts as I understand it. So there are certainly some all-inclusive resorts in Cuba and less independent travel from what I’m hearing so far, but obviously we’re pretty big and pretty close so it could make a big difference if that gets normalized. I predicted for years that this was going to be the year that we were going to normalize relations with Cuba. This year I’m predicting nothing will happen at least until we have elections in November. So if my track record continues to be wrong than at least I’ll be wrong in the right way.
Dave: Yeah, well I just can’t see enough changing fast that that’s going to become Miami Beach again for a while anyhow. What the ambassador said was he believes that foreign investors will be in their early because they think we’re coming and they can beat us to the punch, so that the infrastructure may get bailed out by somebody else, and I don’t know exactly how that works in the face of the restrictions that I understood to be in the embargo. But there is a chain of hotels from a Spanish company, I think called Melia that they have 40 some hotels within the country, so somebody’s figured out how to do it.
Chris: Well the interesting thing will be as they have relaxed the rules about capitalism in the country too, that may easily make greater changes even than Americans coming in because it has in other places like Vietnam I think of for instance.
Dave: Yeah, I agree.
Chris: Excellent. I think we already did the one thing that makes you laugh so one picture that just summarize the trip for you?
Dave: You see Che Guevara everywhere. Che is looking over your shoulder everywhere and I ask them, “So how come we don’t see Fidel everywhere?” And the answer is because Fidel is still alive, so apparently they don’t memorialize somebody until they’re ready to be memorialized.
Dave: But I do have a picture of a great Billboard of Che and it has a Spanish phrase underneath it, but I actually ran it through on my phone, the Google translator. And it says, and this really summarizes their view of Che whose famous picture is looking down on you everywhere. It said “Che,” and underneath it says “night without blemish and unafraid.” So I just remember Che looking down on me with that view. He is literally everywhere. We only saw one public poster with Fidel’s photo on it and it was in Santiago I think because that was the birthplace of the revolution, so he got a little bit of pre-deceased signage there.
Chris: Interesting. Finish this thought, “You really know you’re in Cuba when…” what?
Dave: You really know you’re in Cuba when your tour guide tells you, “Take a good look at me because the next time you see me, you won’t recognize me,” and the basis of that was she told us that in Cuba what works is education and medical care. And their medical care is free, and she pointed out that that included plastic surgery, so we’re going to see a different woman when we came back next time.
Chris: And if you had to summarize Cuba in three words?
Dave: I would say friendly, musical, and change.
Chris. And you mentioned musical. You talked a little bit about hearing the people playing on the streets, and coming out of the clubs and such, and the one concert you went to. Any other experiences that sort of make that one of your three biggest impressions of the place?
Dave: Well there was this music everywhere when you’re walking around the streets. There were in addition to being in the clubs where it was really wild and crazy, there were three or four piece musicians standing on the corners, and music going everywhere we went, and it just seems to be built into the soul of the Cuban people to be very, very musical and it’s one of the big impressions. I know I have a cousin who’s actually on her way to Cuba right now to spend five days in a musical program to visit various music venues in Cuba and see that. So I think they’re certainly renowned for that and the world popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club movement I think there’s witness to that.
Chris: Excellent. I’m a little jealous you did the people-to-people. Jen Leo, my co-host on this weekend travel did a cultural exchange around baseball in Cuba and I think that would be fascinating to do as a big baseball fan in an island that’s also baseball crazy.
Dave: Yeah, they are totally baseball crazy. We brought school stuff for the kids there. That’s one thing that we were advised to bring, pens, and pencils, and notebooks, and crayons, and that sort of stuff, but I think if I was to do it again I would bring a case of baseballs because these kids love baseball and when they talk about baseball they have one baseball, and that’s it. And if they hit it over the fence, they got to spend time finding it, so I think you would be a local hero if you brought baseballs to hand out to the kids. The fun thing is that in the next few weeks when President Obama visits Cuba, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are playing the Cuban national team and the President is going to the game.
Chris: Oh, I missed that. Interesting, interesting.
Dave: That would be fun.
Chris: Well the Cuban national team has always had a very good reputation.
Dave: Yeah, I think the MLB could come out of there with a loss. We’ll have to see how it goes.
Chris: Could easily be, could easily be. Depends on who the pitcher is that day I think.
Dave: That’s right.
Chris: Excellent. Our guest again has been David Grenewetzki. David, you don’t have a travel blog yet, as I recall.
Dave: Nope. I spend too much time traveling to write about it.
Chris: I completely understand that, so we won’t send you any place necessarily to read David’s writing. But Dave, thank you so much for coming back on the show and telling us about your new found love of Cuba.
Dave: It’s always fun, Chris. Thanks.
Chris: I’m going to skip the community news this week because I’m trying to get the show up before I head to Cambodia with some of you, but as soon as we get back, we’re going to start talking about where to go next as an Amateur Traveler trip. So to join that conversation on Facebook, go to amateurtraveler.com/trips to get redirected to the Facebook group. With that we’re going to end this episode of The Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send an email to host at amateurtravel.com or better yet leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. The transcript of this episode is sponsored by JayWay Travel, experts in eastern European travel, and don’t forget our sponsor Select Italy at selectitaly.com. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.