[as a preamble this is written from a United States perspective who are a minority of overall visitors to CUBA.]
This trek was dedicated to my dear friend, Dr. Esteban Dominguez Morales who passed away earlier this year. Over the years we developed a great friendship. He explained how he joined the revolution as a young teenager. As he gained formal education; achieving two pHD's, including one from Russia, he became a leading voice in Cuban social issues and economics. His seminal work on race helped me immensely in better understanding the culture
My trek to Cuba (Coo-ba) just ended. I remind those who ask the big difference between a trek and a vacation; is work and sacrifice. Another critical element is my treks are based on a laser-focused efficient budget. Many of you who follow my articles already know how my passion for Cuba was developed after my first visit in 2015. The first year was simply more of a bucket-list adventure: explore the country first-hand. Upon returning that experience led me to do more research into the culture and the history. I discovered the book “Race in Cuba” and after reading it I had many questions. Ever since then I committed to doing solid research on racism in Cuba and the impact of Negro League baseball in Cuba. Based on my progress I have two more treks to complete my research and then I will be able to formally publish
Going to Cuba has fascination for many. As the Caribbean’s largest country at 11 million, like many countries there are contradictions. Currently a small but notable population is fleeing the country and seeking asylum status to whatever country that will accept them. The country is dealing with issues where people must make adjustments. It is not as bad as the 1990’s when the Soviet Union collapsed resulting in them not receiving the financial support they had come to expect. From my real-life interviews that was a brutal period where people were fighting for basic survival. The current situation is tough as shortages and other sacrifices are an everyday reality.
While the Biden administration has clawed back some of the draconian measures the Trump administration implemented, those traveling from the United States must be diligent in understanding approved regulations to visit the country. At the same time I notice some are willing to take the risk and travel as a tourist doing things such as visiting beaches, visiting government run businesses and enjoying the country. They do so at their own peril because while the Cuban government may turn the other way, returning back home may result in severe questioning or imposing financial penalties. Part of the basic requirement in visiting is you must have a bullet-proof itinerary (in your possession at all times with your passport and travel visa) to document your “business.”
I missed my 2021 trek as even though Covid was simmering down, the airlines had elevated ticket prices that my pockets could not handle. Luckily, 2022 showed greater promise as prices became more affordable. The biggest hitch was selecting a reliable airline because there are many that claim to accommodate Cuba. I was looking at United but at the last minute had to switch because they were having logistical issues in flying into Jose Marti International. Luckily American offered the right combination. LAX to Miami and then off to Havana.
I normally make my treks in November, before or after Thanksgiving so this time I needed to dedicate the entire month as we added going to Belize to witness the Garifuna Settlement celebration. Around August I had to move it into high gear and move into the final planning phase. This was critical because going to CUBA is very fluid or everchanging as was the case with money or the value of the U.S. Dollar as well as accommodations.
My itinerary was solid as I planned for meetings, interviews and other interactions. The focus of this trek was to visit Matanzas; San Severino Slave Castle and Palmarde Junco, which in 1874 became Cuba’s first baseball stadium. I am proud to report, even today it stands in its glory as games are still played there. Additionally, there was much to do in Havana as well as Camaguey and then on to Santiago. The notion of understanding racism goes back before the revolution which is why it was important for me to see the Moncada barracks as it became a pivotal moment in history. My initial goal was to travel using the updated train system but my host in Matanzas convinced me it was too perilous as schedules were unpredictable. After acquiescing I made my journey from Havana to Santiago via the Viazul. Below are highlights of my trek.
Assuming you meet one of the twelve categories to travel to Cuba, a tourist visa is basic documentation U.S. citizens will also need to travel. From my experience pricing will range from $25 to $100. Staff is generally positioned adjacent the airline you are flying to enter CUBA. The lower prices are generally available for non-US flights. Unlike past years there is no fear by having your passport stamped by Cuban immigration or suffering the rath once you return to the U.S. and being questioned, “what were you doing in Cuba?”
For those whining about inflation I would encourage them to visit Cuba. As mentioned there are severe shortages of the most basic commodities. The CUP (Cuban peso) is very fluid and fluctuates daily. You can exchange on the informal market but like most things – Buyer beware! In other words, you need to develop a reliable source, or the alternative is simply to exchange at Cadeca’s or banks. During my visit the rate was ranging $1 equal 110 pesos. My rate on the informal market was $1 to 150 pesos. This is a tremendous benefit assuming you are comfortable doing business with the local economy, but you must ditch any resemblance as a tourist.
You will notice national products (i.e., tabac [cigars], rum, coffee and other items) can only be had with an international card. That can spell trouble as the card is pegged almost dollar to dollar as many of the products are marked in that currency. One thing I did notice is a few shops at the airport accept CUPs, so that is another opportunity to stretch your buying power.
As you’re doing your research on Cuba you will discover lots of news on shortages. They are real and for most Cubans it remains a nagging headache to wait in endless lines to try and retrieve basic goods. The other shortage which was new during this trek was the power. Until you witness it, it is hard to phantom. The solution is exceptional organizing of your day as well as your resources in preserving power (mobile phones, computers, etc.)
Trekking is not for the week and feeble. For this trek based on my Epson smartwatch I pegged 96 miles of walking!!!!! The rest was cabs and motorcycles (rider). For this trip I had planned to ride the local buses, which are now 2 pesos, but logistics prevented that experience. I journeyed from Havana to Santiago and provinces in between via the Viazul bus system. Interestingly, locals are prevented from riding the Viazul and must travel on the national buses. The reason I was told was because the country is trying to ramp up tourism and needs every available seat to those visiting the country. Here is the bottom-line, the country of Cuba is wide and from Havana to Santiago is about 15 hours (except flying which is prohibited from my budget). YOU MUST PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE OUTSIDE OF CUBA (online) and in my case as mentioned I was planning to take the train from Matanzas to Camaguey so I had to do some quick thinking. I contacted my daughter in the US and gave her my Viazul credentials and she was able to secure the ticket and email it to me so I could travel. The cost was:
- Havana to Matanzas = $21
- Matanzas to Camaguey = $31
- Camaguey to Santiago = $21
- Santiago to Havana = $56
So for $115 I was able to literally go across-country. Of course some chose to fly or hire private taxis. That was not my reality as I opted for the more affordable option. As stressed, this type of travel is not for everyone but for me it is perfect. It does make stops along the way. You are able to go into towns you probably never would have the opportunity to go. THERE ARE NO RESTROOMS ON THE BUS. A smart traveler will always sneak some tissue into their luggage as the custom in Cuba when there are stops is to pay to use the restroom (10 pesos). Also, it is not uncommon for the bus to pull over in the rural terrain to allow those who simply can’t wait to relieve themselves.
I surely do not come to Cuba to lay on the internet but you do need that resource for communication. The system has greatly improved in Cuba. You now have several options which include getting a sim card, getting a phone, internet cards, etc. I selected internet card and to my surprise the prices have greatly decreased. In the past it was not uncommon to pay 1:1 or with US Dollars. As an example 5 hours would cost $5. Of course some access cards on the informal market. For me I prefer to go to the Ectesa office. Expect a wait should you use this option as there is usually a line to get into the office. I waited about three hours but it was worth it as to my surprise three 5 hour cards cost 375 pesos the equivalent of $2.50 based on my exchange rate. One important thing while the service has greatly improved part of your logistics planning is to map out available hotspots based on your travels.
Photos of the trek can be accessed by clicking on the appropriate link