Cuba: Yank Tanks, Salsa, Music, and Art in a Vibrant Setting
Updated: Jan 28
I was lucky to be invited to travel to Cuba in the heat of the summer in June 2016 to enjoy learning about the island’s fascinating culture, politics, and history. Cuba is quite unlike anything in the democratized Western world, a socialist country at our doorstep, whose people have figured out that socialism does not ideally work and have found brilliant ways to create an underground economy, while the government that owns virtually all businesses turns a blind, perhaps winking eye. Indeed, the government is beginning to privatize many businesses- evidenced by giving latitude to the tobacco farmers, parador operators (private restaurants) and owners of well appointed, luxurious private homes and apartments for short term tourist visits.
It is the only country that I have heard about that has traditionally exported talent for oil (doctors to Venezuela). You will find that the Cubans are well educated, and generally pleased with the standards of health care and education, all free. The government grants a fully paid one-week annual vacation to all citizens at a government owned hotel of their choice and provides income and monthly food rations to all.
The government controls who can own a car and which car, in recognition of special talent or service. These lucky individuals can include doctors, nurses, educators, diplomats, government workers, artists, musicians, entertainers and athletes. The government bestows the chosen with gifts of cars, apartments and special favors. Many of these perks are used in the underground economy as added income in the form of home and apartment short term and longer term rentals to tourists and diplomats, taxi service and private entertainment.
In Cuba, the government collects 90% of reported revenues from all commercial activities, but again the ingenious have their ways.
In Habana, as it is spelled and pronounced by locals, there is a very active and accessible music and arts scene. Political opinion, primarily opposition to the standing government is expressed through both; although censorship exists, it is fairly light. Dissension through the arts is encouraged to cause thoughtful discourse.
Historically Cuba is also quite interesting. The U.S. Mafia controlled much of the Havana economy and cultural scene starting with prohibition in the 20s up until the Revolution in the late 50s. The colorful era includes tales of 80,000 prostitutes, marijuana farms, alcohol, casinos- a virtual bad boys’ weekend destination well attended by well off citizens of the States.
The Revolution destroyed the US backed Batista government. Fidel Castro opposed corrupt government and dictatorship and was able to overthrow the government by enlisting the peasants in the 1959 coup. Cuba was not communist until late 1962 when the Soviet Union saw an opportunity to place missiles off the U.S. coast. Argentinian Che Guevara’s influence on Fidel Castro led to Russian’s support of the Cuban economy. The 70s-80-early 90s was boom time with the Soviet support. The collapse of Soviet Union had a devastating effect on the economy.
Cuba today is a culture of re-emerging, hopeful people, but to succeed they must combat the laziness built by years of government handout. The strong belief is that the answer to social and economic revival is in the youth. I found the Cubans to be very hopeful, almost naïve about the impact American tourism can bring. The Revolution that occurred 57 years ago is still a hot topic
and the 54 year U.S. embargo has stunted growth.
Cuba’s main trade partners are Canada and China. Tourism with non U.S. countries has been steady. Westernized hotels exist, but are few, and service and amenities are generally not up to U.S. standards. That is changing with some larger Western hotel chains entering the market, but it will take time.
There are three hotels that I would recommend to travelers, two in Old Havana, but the location of one is better than the other, and surprisingly, this if the more affordable of the two. The third hotel is a very westernized, large hotel with lots of music and restaurant choices- near the modern part of Havana- closer to some of the nightclubs, but a more residential neighborhood, close to the Malacon. (Seafront promenade). Again it’s prices were reasonable, but it’s experience would be less authentic than the other hotels or even homestay choices. Havana is a very walkable city, but it’s hard to know where restaurants and shops are, as none are well marked, thus the need for a local guide, with the exception of a small part of Old Town Havana which can be explored on your own for shopping, bars, restaurants.
Much of the experience will depend on the guide or driver. Our guide was from Greece, but had lived in Cuba for 10-15 years. He was a fascinating history buff, who could speak about Cuban, American and Soviet actions as factual- probably less biased than someone who lived through the history. He was fun to be around- many of the experiences we had were not things he had done before as he was a free-lancer of our partner operator. While he didn't have impeccable manners he was energetic, interesting, easy going and accompanied us wherever we decided to go, including nightclubs. To say the least, guide selection is very important so selection of the right operator is paramount.
Suggested itinerary for 8 days in Cuba
• 4 days minimum Havana- stay at hotel near Old Havana or a private house
• Spend a few hours in the Modern Art Museum- art and expression throughout history tell a vibrant story of the Cuban culture and its triumphs and travails
• Visit private installations of local artists and meet with them personally to understand their gift of artistic interpretation
• Salsa lessons- maybe 2 sessions on different days: very fun, but difficult (at least for me) to master
• Rum Tasting: Rums that you can’t find in the U.S. there is the embargo and who knew there were so many tasty rums to a non–Rum drinker!
• Nightclubs especially F.A.C. a multi stage, multi bar, multimedia club experience that is not to be missed. Other nightclubs are lively and small- very accessible and inexpensive with great local and even globally recognized performers
• Not to be missed: Dinners at la Guarida, El Litoral
• Experience some local Parladors- 2 we visited were excellent
• Visit the outdoor Modern art museum in the Fusterlandia neighborhood (Jose Fuster- reminiscent of Gaudi- the Spanish artist)
• Modern dance school private showing- percussion and group dance; very energetic and fun
• Market visit and celebrity chef prepared lunch or dinner in a private home or parador
• Historical guided walk through Old Town, visit museums
• Cruise around in a Yank Tank (Old Car)
• Visit the Santeria block of artists; see a sacrifice around the botanic gardens, river
• Visit a tobacco farm
• Hemingway house (only if private tour can be arranged)
• Take in the beautiful architecture- interesting photos of beauty, decay, and restoration
• Cienfuegos- 3 hours by car from Havana- get there for lunch, stay one night- French founded, eclectic nightlife, castles. Could skip this if only 8 days.
• On to Trinidad- 2 nights 1.5 hours by car. Colonial city, salsa in the street, slave trade history. The only hotel is a renovated palace,
• Beach Varadero- 2.5 hours best beaches. Stay in DuPont family home: Xana du; across the street from nice golf course 2 nights recommended
Latitude can book arrangements to Cuba through an approved Tour operator, and it is recommended that group trips be limited to 6-8 visitors, to avoid extra time, examination and paperwork required by the Cuban government for larger groups.
Note: Update circa 2019: There are again restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba in a "people to people" capacity that has eliminated many tour operators and travel agents from being able to send guests to Cuba. Our partner has Cuban visas that are approved by the both American and Cuba government and we are able to send tourists Cuba.