Cuba, Travel

Our man in Havana – I ticked Cuba off my bucket list.

Yup. 

That was me raising my hat to Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos at La Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba. 

Now, let me impress upon your otherwise chagrined minds that I do not care for communism or its purveyors. I was saluting Che and Camilo only because, well, my picture at La Plaza de la Revolución had to be different. It had to pique curiosity. Besides, everyone in Cuba adores the ‘Revolución.’ 

It’s hard to talk about Cuba without getting into the politics of its destitution. But I’ll try. One thing is for sure: most people don’t drool over Cuba as a vacation hotspot. I mean, it is Cuba. Communism. Privation. Hurricanes. Cuba is where you go when you’ve impregnated a terrorist’s wife or stolen from Los Zetas. But then most people planning a vacation are not Jide Alade. Most people have good sense. Jide does not. Especially when he drags his beauteous wife with him. 

So, why Cuba? 

Well, I’ve never been to a communist country before. When Nigerians travel, we go to familiar places. We don’t wake up and plan for a daiquiri in a gulag in Laos. So, Cuba held a mystique and allure for me. 

To be honest, I didn’t wake up and say, “Hey honey, let’s go see Fidel Castro’s grave.” I happen to be going to Miami for Adweek’s BrandWeek. I needed to know more about this new-fangled ‘Metaverse’ that was going to change marketing and our lives. But after BrandWeek then what? Come back to Lagos after five days into the usual drudgery? Not if I can help it. So, I planned some leave days after the conference. Plus it’s the year of the missus’ significant birthday. If I can interest her in travelling with me, I could escape throwing her a party. 

Yea, I’m cheap like that. 

I don’t go on vacation every year. But when I do, I like to visit two or three countries. Contiguous countries are good options for cost and logistics reasons. 

So what countries are close to the US? 

Canada? I don’t care for -1000℃ weather. 

The Bahamas? Way too expensive and cliché. 

Jamaica? They let Bob Marley die of cancer – I still hold a grudge. 

Honduras? Gang wars. 

Haiti? Poverty pies and misery ice cream. 

Then the light came on. 

Cuba! Mexico! 

Mojitos, tacos and guacamole.

Both Cuba and Mexico are close to Miami. Havana is a 1hr 10m flight from Miami. Cancun is 1hr 45m. Return tickets are N126K and N185K respectively. That’s cheaper than return tickets to Abuja or Accra!

Sweetheart, pack your bags!

What remains is the simple matter of getting visas. 

Cuba doesn’t do ‘simple.’ 

Only 20 countries are visa-free to Cuba. As you would expect, Nigeria is not among those lucky countries. But we are in good company. Citizens of the US, the UK, Canada and the EU also need visas to visit Cuba. 

I had read on several websites that you can get a Cuba visitor visa at your departure airport or from your airline. But I’m Nigerian. We don’t believe good things come easy. A direct confirmation from the embassy was in order. 

The Cuban embassy website was no help. Cuba has an embassy in Abuja. But good luck finding it. Diplomatic Drive is a popular street in Abuja. But we just couldn’t find the embassy. The phone numbers didn’t work either. Neither did the email address. It was as if the embassy didn’t want to be found. I even wrote the Cuba Foreign Mission in Washington. Crickets. 

But my resolve was untiring. I shall drink daiquiri and hug Ernest Hemingway at La Floridita!

La Floridita. Bar and restaurant. Ernest Hemingway was said to frequent the bar and drink a daiquiri. Legend has it the daiquiri was invented here. Hemmingway’s statue was erected at his usual spot in the bar.

After weeks of arduous search, I struck gold.

The Cuba Foreign Mission in Washington replied to my email! 

Turns out I can indeed buy the visa (also called a Tourist Card) from approved travel agents. Or from the airline if I’m flying to Havana from the US. They gave me an email address and phone number of an approved travel agent in Miami. 

If that isn’t bee’s knees!

It sounded too good to be true. Too easy. But I’m Nigerian. One more check. 

I reached out to the American Airlines office in Havana and to the travel agent. American confirmed I can buy the visa (tourist card) at a stand next to their Cuba check-in point at Miami International Airport. The travel agency also confirmed that as long as I had a multiple-entry US B1/B2 visa, they’ll sell me the visa. I could buy the visa on the day of my flight or I could buy it online in advance. But they will only ship the visa to a US address. 

Deal me up, baby!

It feels strange to buy a country’s visa from a travel agent or an airline. I kept thinking it was a set-up. Either American Airlines would deny us boarding on the day or stern immigration officials in Havana will throw us in jail on arrival. But none of these happened. 

The Cuban Tourist Visa itself is a slip of paper. Like a cheque. Only lighter. Because of the beef between the US and Cuba, the visa fee is $100 if you’re flying in from the US. It is a pathetic $20 if you’re flying from other countries. 

Sigh. Innocent people always get caught up in wars. 

But there’s a catch to flying to Cuba from the US. 

You see, the US has a trade embargo on Cuba. American businesses cannot do business in Cuba. And American citizens cannot go to Cuba for tourism. This tourism prohibition in fact does extend to anyone – American citizen or not – flying to Cuba from a US airport. That includes me. 

The Department of Treasury lists categories under which Americans or any persons travelling from a US airport can visit Cuba legally without requiring DoT permission in advance. These categories are known as “general travel licences” and there are twelve of them. The airline requires you to tick one before a ticket is sold to you. You can read about the licenses here. 

The license we selected and under which most Americans travel to Cuba is the ‘Support for Cuban People’ license. In summary, it entails:

(i). Not staying in government-owned hotels. (Remember, Cuba is a communist country and the government controls everything. The aim of the US embargo is to starve the Cuban government – and not its people – of funds. The Department of Treasury publishes a list of hotels not to stay in Cuba). 

(ii) You should only stay in ‘casa particulars’ or people’s homes. Basically AirBnB. This puts money directly in the pocket of ordinary Cubans. 

(iii). You should only eat in ‘paladares,’ family-owned or private restaurants. Again this puts money directly into the pockets of ordinary Cubans and not in the government’s. 

(iii). You should only engage in full-time activities that guarantee meaningful exchanges with the Cuban people. You therefore can’t flop on the beaches in your Bahama shorts and drink mojitos all day. That’s touristy. It’s not allowed. 

Interestingly, The DoT requires Americans to keep receipts of their payments in Cuba for 5 years. Just to be sure they are not patronising the Cuban government. Crazy, right? 

Why does America have it in for Cuba? Here is an informative timeline of US-Cuba relations. 

Now, does the US government enforce compliance with all these regulations? Absolutely not. Nobody questions you at the airport on your departure and return. When we flew back to Miami, the CBP officer only wanted to know if we brought in Cuban cigars, rum or coffee beans. Those items are prohibited by DoT. But me, I like to obey US regulations. If Uncle Sam has it in for you, you are screwed. We stayed in casa particulars, only ate at paladares and had meaningful exchanges with the Cuban people. 

So, what was Havana like?

A time warp to the ‘50s. 

Crumbling buildings. Sputtering 1950s vehicles. Narrow and dirty streets. 

This is a city that has been beaten by man and nature. There is privation around every corner.

Walking through the streets of Havana felt like walking through a recovering war zone. Most of the buildings are decaying, the result of austerity and incessant hurricanes (Hurricane Ian hit Cuba one week after we left).

I find it all quaint and surreal though. I like real cities. Not like Dubai. 

The missus, not much. 

Right from the airport, I knew she wasn’t going to take to Havana. 

The Arrivals section of the José Martí International Airport is as joyless as the Arrivals section of Murtala Muhammed International Airport. It was poorly lit and outmoded. Immigration officials pulled us over and went through our passports with a fine tooth-comb. Three officials huddled in a corner and scrutinised our various visas. They kept looking at us. Perhaps we were spies? Maybe drug dealers? An official came to question us some more. I found it all amusing. 

Not the missus. She was irritated and angry. 

Sweetheart, be calming down. This is a communist country. Suspicion is second nature.

Our passports were handed back and we were asked to proceed to border control. They separated us. It was the first time I was frisked by a female security officer. 

I’m loving it in Havana already!

On our way back out of Cuba, my visas elicited as much scrutiny. The young pretty border officer that processed me kept running her thumb over my Schengen visa. What was her business with my Schengen visa? She hardly glanced at my Cuban visa or my US visa. Only the Schengen. She spent an interminable time running her thumb over the visa while adorning a stern mien and looking at me.

Honey, I know the drill. You ain’t gonna ruffle my feathers.

We only spent three days in Havana. Our Airbnb accommodation was in the quaint La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) district. It’s a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. Santi – for Santiago – our AirBnB host, was the best host ever. Internet connectivity in Cuba is not widespread. But Santi got us a prepaid SIM with data for free. He is big on customer experience. 

I received this offer with mixed emotions. Per popular accounts on YouTube, I was hoping that it would indeed be difficult to get on the internet in Havana. No office emails, no WhatsApp messages, no Google. Just meaningful human interactions. But I wasn’t going to be afforded such luxuries thanks to Santi. Worse, his apartment even had Wi-Fi! 

You suck, Santi!

Havana is a small city. Walking around was easy. I like walking.

What strikes me about Havana?

Why, the 1950s cars, of course! They are one of the attractions of Cuba. When the US embargo kicked in in 1961, it left Cuba stuck with American cars with no spare parts. But Cubans are resourceful. They scavenge and cobble parts together to get the cars running. Now, they’ve become a landmark of the country and are prized by tourists. A 30-minute ride in one is upwards of $40. If it is a convertible and really shiny, expect to pay more.

For an impoverished city, Havana is incredibly safe. I’d read about how wonderfully safe it is and can confirm it. You never felt unsafe late at night. Even when I had an expensive camera slung over my shoulder and was an obvious tourist. Violent crimes or mugging are non-existent in Cuba. Only street-smart hustle. Blokes offering to sell you authentic (but fake) Cuban cigars on the cheap. Moms begging you for money to buy milk for her child (scam). Rickshaws asking to be paid in dollars instead of pesos because they know you are a tourist. Nothing to be upset about. Besides, we are here to support the Cuban people, ain’t we? 

We didn’t like the food though. Rice and beans and pork are a staple in Cuba. And mango and avocado. But the lemonades and fruit juices are homemade, fresh and the best. Cuba has the most fragrant mint leaves in the world!

We did find a nice restaurant a block from our accommodation. Lo De Monik. Air-conditioned and cosy. We liked the restaurant and the food a lot.

On our last night in Havana, we ate at San Cristóbal Paladar in Habana Centro (Central Havana). President Obama and the First Family ate there in 2016 when they visited Havana. Beyonce and Jay Z also ate at the restaurant in 2013. It was the best dinner we’d had in Havana.

Viñales Valley

We went on a day trip to the picturesque town of Viñales, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Havana. You can’t talk about Cuba without talking about cigars. And you can’t talk about cigars without talking about Viñales. The region reportedly makes the best cigars in Cuba and by extension, the world. 

I quit smoking eleven years ago. And when I smoked, I never developed a taste for cigars. Partly because they were too expensive, partly because I was too young to enjoy the indulgence of a cigar. But I’ll be remiss to visit Cuba and not learn how its most famous export is made. And Viñales was the place.

Our Airbnb host hooked us up with a taxi to take us to Viñales and back. It was a hefty €150. But it was a well air-conditioned car. The driver didn’t speak a word of English. We communicated via Google Translate. Meaningful human exchange. 

There is not a lot to do in Viñales. You visited a tobacco farm (and ride a horse if you want). You went into a cave. You visited the Mural de la Prehistoria. 

I have ticked Cuba off my bucket list. Will I go back there? Unlikely. Do I like the place? Yes. Cuba accepts you with your foibles and weaknesses. No affectations here. 

Three days was too short to do justice to Cuba. But it is a country my heart bleeds for. A country I pray rises from its hardship and prospers. 

I could go back there with my boys and venture out beyond Havana. But for now, I’ve sated my curiosity.

On to Mexico.

And oh, the birthday girl.

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