CUBA – Special Report, our recent visit


Our trek to CUBA focused on two specific goals.  One, interview and gain insight into Dr. Esteban Morales Dominguez‘ work on race relations and two, interview officials from the Cuban baseball federation, specifically about the historic impact of the Negro Leagues and how they competed in Cuba way before Jackie Robinson made his major league debut.

I wore my 1947 Cuba National team jersey.  Many folk on the island asked where I got it from and if any where left?  Even when I got back to the U.S. the lad from Customs asked about it.  I told them, you can’t get this is CUBA, it is only available through my homie who owns BallerGear (Larchmont on Sunday’s).

This post will highlight a summary of the trip.  Documentation from the two topics is being edited and will be presented within several days in subsequent posts.


For citizens of the United States going to Cuba and being able to navigate your journey is not for the faint of heart.  Of course, just about every other country of mankind already knows about the magic of the Caribbean’s largest country.  Coincidently our trek occurred at the beginning of tourist season which will go until March.  I did ask our host why it was from November to March and no longer?  The answer was after March, many tourists who are not used to tropical weather find it too uncomfortable or too hot!!

 

During my last visit in 2015 my dear friend Charles Boesan gave a great explanation of how so many people from other countries treasure their visit to Cuba.  It is something you have to see first-hand to fully appreciate but it does make you question the embargo and why some political leaders simply can’t muster the courage to address the issue?

Extend goodwill

This brings us to the issue of the administration of Barack Obama.  The majority of people I spoke to in Cuba have great respect and admiration of President Obama.  They speak with passion of his desire to “open up the country” so citizens from the U.S. could more freely visit the country.  His policies and subsequent visit in 2016 represented a critical achievement for him and represented tremendous pride for the people of Cuba.  Of course, there were those dissidents who were vocally critical of Obama’s gesture as even today they appear locked down in the Cold War ideology and view anything which shows the slightest gains of the country on the world stage as negative. Or they claim it infers the Castro regime will be viewed positively, therefore that is something they will never tolerate…….at least not for now.  Admittedly, the issue is complex so one way or another you either accept the progress or your don’t.

Make no mistake President Obama is not perfect and some feel he could have done more but the point is he made history simply by extending a hand of goodwill.

 

Some in Cuba view Trump as “the Grinch who stole Christmas”

Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Bloomberg

 

Luckily for Cuba, tourism is huge and folk from other countries can’t wait for the plane to land.  As a matter of fact, I was corrected and told Mexico is the leading country, followed by Canada, then Spain, Europe, Italy, on and on.  Very few Americans, let alone Afro-Americans or even Belizeans are seen in Cuba BUT Judith and I were treated with great welcome and respect as the people displayed genuine intrigue and warmth.

Let me be clear – as much as I and others may appreciate visiting Cuba, it simply is not for everybody.  The sacrifices can be challenging and make you wonder why in the world would you put yourself through the ordeal?  If you are one of those or you have a “high maintenance” personality my advice is to go to other countries where issues are hidden and all you see are the glistening waters, the pampering and all of the attention you don’t mind paying for.  I did run into a few folk (from the U.S.) who couldn’t wait to leave the island.  But after some conversation with them I honestly would assess their problems stemmed from lack of preparation or unreasonable expectations.

 

Cubans we spoke to are very eager to find out about Americans.  They feel Trump’s actions have pulled the rug from under them as the gestures executed by the Obama administration wet their appetite of enormous possibilities.  They view actions by Trump as a big step in the wrong direction or going back to the cold war environment.  Further, it’s not about liking Obama or disliking Trump but more about common sense.  Through his actions Obama opened dialogue and the opportunity to develop relationships.  Trump’s behavior is consistent in showing us his style and his ideology.   He may think his rise to political power is due to his business acumen but some would point to his manipulation of people’s fears or his quest to divide or otherwise create roadblocks for people to unite.  His moniker of “Make America Great Again” is viewed as a euphemism or hustle to project an us versus them mentality, and surprisingly many people agree with him!  So, it’s one thing to attempt to dismantle anything positive the Obama administration achieved, it’s another thing to use policies to affect unity.

 

As a matter of fact, with the recent update of the travel restrictions as well as the State Department issuing a travel warning, many who have yearned to finally visit Cuba feel their dreams have vanished, at least temporarily.  Of course, Treasury Department still allows those who fall within legitimate categories to visit Cuba.  However, confusion is still in the air and there is lots of misinformation.  Incidentally about two weeks prior to our scheduled trip I received an email from our host with a tone of consternation as they felt we would have to cancel our trip.

Of course, the rest is history as our trip was successful and we had absolutely no issues going to Cuba or returning back to the United States.

Preparation

This is shared from our experience.  Yours may be exactly the same or it may be different.

  • Verify your trip meets guidelines issued by Treasury Department
  • Itinerary
  • Passport
  • Travel Visa
  • Housing
  • Money
  • Health Insurance
  • Departure Tax

Many people I speak to who are U.S. citizens are excited about visiting Cuba.  Yes, they should be excited but one must understand, they need a purpose?  In other words what is your motivation to visit Cuba?  It surely can’t be that of a tourist or to go check out the beaches, smoke cigars or lounge around drinking rum!  Cuba has its issues and for many the sight of the buildings or the inconveniences you deal with are more than even the Trump administration’s discouragement.  However, for the bold, the few that don’t necessarily need to travel in a pack, or those who don’t judge folk from material possessions will appreciate the resilience of the people of Cuba.  The bottom-line is if you have the spirit to accept folk where they are at and truly want to explore how they navigate through every day life, then you will have a great experience.

 

Once you decide or make a commitment to visit Cuba my best tip is to do yourself a favor a do a little homework on CUBA.  Get a grasp on the history, the places you will stay as well as the requirements necessary for a successful trip.

 

A POINTER – WHILE THE POLICIES FOR CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES ARE BASIC AND VERY CLEAR, KEEP IN MIND PROCESSES MAY CHANGE FROM TIME TO TIME SO THE KEY IS IF IN DOUBT ASK QUESTIONS BUT MAKE SURE THE RESPONSE IS FROM AN AUTHORITIVE SOURCE.

 

  • Verify you meet the approved categories as mandated by the Treasury Department.

 

Air travel.  We flew Alaska Airlines and to our amazement was able to secure a NONSTOP flight from LAX – 5 ½ hours at a price that was better than a “Black Friday” special.

Alaska airline has special line for CUBA

sadly – as of January 5, 2018 Alaska Airlines will cease flights to Havana.

  • Itinerary – Part of the Treasury Department guidelines is you must have a specific reason to visit.  So, word to the wise, take a couple of minutes and prepare a bullet-proof itinerary or schedule.  AND, it should be part of the documentation you have with you at all times.  I had mine on my smart phone.  Never had to show anything to anybody………but had it ready if needed.

 

 

Documents

 

  • Passport – you need a valid passport.  One other critical notation.  In the past while you must present your passport, it was not stamped by Cuba customs.  Instead, they stamped your travel visa.  HOWEVER, this time was different.  Upon entering CUBA, they stamped my travel visa and I didn’t notice it at the time but when we departed and presented our documents at customs and received my passport, I noticed they kept the travel visa but the passport was stamped.

 

  • Travel Visa – this is the document you need to enter Cuba and it must be on you at all times.   Now, I got snake bit as the initial plan was to obtain from the Cuba Embassy in D.C. (I happen to be in DC in September and stopped by the Consulate and received specs on what documents I needed as well as the $50.  Well, we never received.  No worries, on a worse case basis your airline or departing airport will have a legitimate organization which will sell you a travel visa, ON THE SPOT.  In our case, once we checked in at Alaska airlines, they simply pointed us to the kiosk which had staff from Cuba Travel Services and the fee was $100.  The give you a folder with your travel visa.  They instruct you to write your name, passport, info, etc. and have ready to present once you arrive in CUBA.  One more point and I don’t know the specific answer………….it appears where you fly from will determine the cost of your travel visa because the closer you are to CUBA may result in a reduced fee.  Anyway, ours was $100 and yes, Cuba Travel Services accepts payment via credit card.
Cuba Travel Services was on site and after payment you are given pouch which includes your visa. You complete it before you arrive to Cuba. Cost $100

 

Housing

 

** see footnote at bottom of post regarding casa particulares

I get questions all of the time from those in the United States who have never visited Cuba and have this grand illusion they are going to nab a five-star hotel and get treated to spas, room service, etc.   Cuba has some great hotels and if your idea is paying $300-$400 per night, you probably should pass on going?  Here’s why, at least from my opinion.  Cuba has tremendous architecture and buildings which make for a unique sight.  As for housing, in addition to hotels, there are hostels, airBnB and then Casa Particulares.  To be specific hostels, airBnB and Casa Particulares could be lumped into one category as for the most part they are private residences.  I prefer legitimate Casa Particulares (staying in someone’s private home where they have transformed a room or two or an area to rent out).  The owner’s must obtain a license and you will notice it on the front of their building.  Anyway, by staying at a Casa Particulares instead of properties which are more corporate, you are having a direct positive financial impact on the family.  The $20 – $40 per night you are making may appear like a steal to you, and yes it is.  But, in Cuba the average salary is $30-$40 per month but be careful not to assume the people are “dying on the vine.”    You just have to understand their economic system.  Anyway, the fee you pay goes a long way to allow the family more financial freedom, plus it is your opportunity to engage the people directly.  So, if you’re not a people person or don’t care about understanding their culture, trek down to the hotel and pay $300.  Otherwise, the better tip is find a legit Casa Particulares as it will be one of the best investments you will make.   Also, many properties have private access with a key so you aren’t bugging the family when you enter or leave.

There are many sites which advertise Casas, so do your homework and ask questions.  Parts of  Cuba are very urban and look like a war zone and other parts are very rural, yet people reside there and have acceptable accommodations.  Further, I have seen no homelessness or beggars and I am sure they are there but that is yet another stark reality which will make you appreciate the resilience of the people.

For this trip I felt like I hit the jackpot!  In setting up the trip and corresponding with Professor Dominguez, he offered us to stay at his place as his wife operates a licensed casa Particulares.  This allowed us to spend more time interviewing him about his work without the hassle of traveling to a set appointment..

 

THIS IS OUR CASA PARTICULARES IN OLD HAVANA

upon arriving in Havana, our host prepared an outstanding traditional Cuban dinner. Rice and Black Bean Soup, Roasted Pork, Casava, Salad and desert (the name escapes me).
This is our balcony. Katia asked us to bring a U.S. flag as she likes each visitor to showcase their country
bathroom – small but functional and clean.
shower
kitchen never had to use.
street scene – park directly across the street
Our room was functional and was more like a suite as it had a couch and room to stretch out.
This is the kitchen area outside the rooms.
Look for the little anchor sign on your Casa. That is your proof the property is properly registered.
View from our third floor balcony. The Capitol was about 2 kilometers to the north.
This is our Casa Particulares. It has three floors and each owner owns one floor. We were on the third flood. No elevators but no worries – great exercise.
Our Casa had two patios. Very quaint.
Our patio had a hammock facing the street so here is Judith catching a break.

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THIS IS OUR CASA PARTICULARES IN TRINIDAD.

Very affordable at $24 per night.

Bath – very functional and clean

Our host Julio
Julio runs the Casa business with his grandmother and girlfriend. Great host, very accomodating.
saying good-bye

Transportation

 

Usually when I travel I love the independence of having my own car.  CUBA is the exception.  You are not in the United States or whatever country you may be coming from so be warned CUBA laws are different and I don’t want to be like the three UCLA basketball players relying on Trump to get us out!!!!

With 11 million plus folk, CUBA is vast and once there you will immediately understand why it is the largest country in the Caribbean.  Anyway, busing or taxi is the way to go.  Of course, for us, we don’t mind walking and did lots of it.  The benefit was getting some great exercise but more important it allowed us to see some sites, neighborhoods you surely would not otherwise be able to see.  I know folk who won’t take the bus on a regular basis here in California but if you are going to Cuba and truly want to meet the people taking the BUS IS THE WAY TO GO.  The trick is to stay alert, oh and to our surprise the bus system goes 24 hours (in the major cities).

Transportation cost can be dicey, as it is assumed you know about the money.  Buses take about 40 pesos or 10 cents, while taxi vary from 25 cents to 1 dollar but the key is to ask your host for pointers on how to navigate transportation.  Also, if you are traveling through the country you will be on a luxury bus. So, as an example our trip from Havana to Trinidad, which was a 7-hour journey ONE WAY but went through 4 key cities/communities cost $50 round trip – what a deal.

 

Money

 

In Cuba there are two currencies – 1.  Convertible Pesos (CUC), equals one dollar to one CUC and 2.  Pesos or national money which equals 24 to 1, so one CUC = 24 pesos.  So, as an example you will see a bottle of coco-cola for 35, which is a little more than 1 peso.

In Cuba many businesses, especially those known as tourist spots will have most items marked in CUC or the higher currency, so you really have to pay attention and perhaps change your plans to try to patronize or spend money at the local or independent businesses because they are for local folk which results in you being able to spend CUPS (24 to 1).  Makes sense????  If not, contact me.

 

Obtaining Cuba currency.  There is no silver bullet as whether you transfer money at the airport, at the Cadeca, with a private person, the hotel, etc. the U.S. dollar gets hammered………. but your options are limited.  Anyway, expect a penalty of 15 cents for every dollar, so you once you trade your dollar you walk away with 85 cents.  It is what it is!!!!  But then again, you’re paying less than $50 per day for housing, less than a couple of bucks for transportation, less than $10 for food etc.  Oh, for those cigar smokers or rum drinkers, they are very affordable as a matter of fact rum is less than the cost of water!!

Health Insurance

Health Insurance is a requirement for U.S. citizens entering Cuba.  You can purchase upon arriving OR, as in our case it was part of our travel fee.

Departure Tax

AFTER MAY 1st, 2015:

*** NEW PROCEDURE ***
Since May 1, 2015 the Cuban Departure Tax will no longer be paid at destination. It should be included in the price of your trip when buying a flight-only or vacation package to Cuba, check with you travel agent, carrier or tour operator.`  The departure tax was included in our airline ticket.

Food 

Cuban food is very accessible.  For some, you will love the street food.  Bottled water is readily available.  Then again some may opt to go to one of the many restaurants.  Seafood is plentiful.  The beef comes from Canada.  Poultry comes from the U.S., so it depends on what you are looking for but the key is you will not starve.  As an example, I got a piece of fried chicken for 1 CUC.  We had a full lobster dinner with 2 drinks and the price was 14 CUCS.  A ham and cheese sandwich are 1 CUC.  The key is prices vary based on where you are at but I can’t stress, the more flexible you are……. the better experience you will have.

 

Casa Particulares Old Havana – breakfast
the famous Coppelia Ice Cream venue
Casa Particulares in Trinidad – great breakfast
Pina Colada and traditional Ham & Cheese
Cuban espresso anyone?

Internet

I can’t stress this……DO YOUR RESEARCH and do not fall for the B.S.  Internet is available in Cuba.  Then again, I doubt seriously you travel to CUBA to lay on the internet all day…….but the point is you do have access.

There are hot spots in most of the major areas.  In addition you can purchase internet access cards at the major hotels (Nacional Hotel of Cuba and Habana Libre Hotel) which in my case was $4.50 for 1 hour.  May seem pricey……but well worth it because you are merely checking in or doing something specific, not laying on-line for hours at a time.

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ADDITIONAL DOCUMENTATION

PHOTOS

Photo Gallery – CUBA 2017 – People

Photo Gallery – CUBA 2017 – Snapshot, Sights & Scenes

Photo Gallery – CUBA 2017 – Food & Beverages

Photo Gallery – CUBA 2017 – Casa Particulares

Photo Gallery – CUBA 2017 – Autos

Photo Gallery – CUBA 2017 – Sites

VIDEOS

 

 

Websites

Judith & Fred’s Cuban Blog

 


Footnotes

Casa particulares

I post the casa particulares I have stayed at or know about on TripAdvisor.  Unfortunately they do not allow postings for many sites.  I don’t know the exact answer but I think it has to do with owners needing to pay a fee/subscription or something?

Havana

hostalKhabana (Katia Dominguez)

  • (53) 78786495
  • michel@cubarte.cult.cu
  • Ayesteran 24 (between Maloja and Carlos III)
  • easy to get to bus stop is across the street or within 2 blocks plus easy access for taxi’s
  • has large room and small room
  • property is on third floor – no elevators
  • upon request will prepare meals
  • you are provided keys so you have independent access
  • Cost is very affordable – expect $25 per night
  • bathroom is very functional and has shower

Casa Particulares Mariela (Mariela Lopez)

  • (53)78353348
  • mariela_1056@yahoo.es
  • Calle 19 #1060 – e/12 y 14 (Vedado)
  • easy to get to.  in between avenida 21 & avenida 23
  • Room is apartment – downstairs/upstairs – very functional
  • upon request will prepare meals
  • you are provided keys so you have independent access
  • Cost is very affordable – expect $35 per night
  • bathroom is very functional and has shower

Trinidad

Casa Katiuska (ask for Jose Julio)

  • (53) 52711385
  • katiuskatrinidad@yahoo.es
  • Frank Pais #36
  • easy to get to, near the main part of Trinidad
  • Has several rooms – very functional
  • great patio
  • upon request will prepare meals
  • you are provided keys so you have independent access
  • Cost is very affordable – expect $25 per night
  • bathroom is very functional and has shower

 


This trek could not be completed if not for the support and love from my wife Judith, who also worked as research assistant on this project.  Also, Dr. Esteban Morales Dominguez never wavered from our initial contact in 2015 to agree to allow us to interview him regarding his work.  He and his wife, Katia were outstanding host.  Also, it must be noted our host in Trinidad; Jose Julio, his grandmother Eulalia and his girlfriend Daritza were simply outstanding in making us feel right at home.

Finally, thanks to Charles, Lani, Tanisha and Tiffany as well as others for encouraging us to make this trip and to complete this important work.

  1.  The interview including video regarding our historic discussion with   Professor Esteban Morales Dominguez will be posted in a few days.
  2.  Our interview and video regarding the discussion with the Masters   Basketball team and other critical issues about our visit will be posted in   a  few days.