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 from everyone else’s. 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 don’t want to be found or you’ve knocked up the daughter of a Los Zeta chief. It’s as far from Lagos as righteousness is far from a bordello. But then most people planning a vacation are not me. Most people have good sense. I do not. Especially when I’ve dragged my beauteous wife along with me.
So, why Cuba?
Well, for one, I’ve never been to a communist country. When Nigerians travel for vacation, we go to familiar places. We go to Europe, North America or the UAE. We don’t wake up and get on a plane for Laos or the Solomon Islands. Yet, least trodden paths hold an allure for me.
Plus, it is Cuba. The Cuba. Fidel Castro. Bay of Pigs Invasion. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Cohiba. 1950s cars. Cuba is a lilliputian state that squared up to Uncle Sam and got hammered into the ground. Some countries go quietly into the night. Not Cuba. It is gutsy, defiant and proud. Yes, I’d like a Cuban stamp in my passport, thank you.
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 a conference. But after the conference then what? Fly back to Lagos after five days to the usual drudgery? Not if I can help it. So, I planned some leave days around the conference. Plus, it is 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.
In recent years, when I travelled for vacation, I’d developed a taste for junketing across cities and countries. I like to visit two or three countries on the same itinerary. As such, I plan my trip around contiguous countries with places of interest. I can easily cross borders by train, bus or a short flight.
So what countries are close to the US?
Canada obviously. But I don’t care for -100℃ weather.
The Bahamas is a few hundred miles off Florida. But it is a tad expensive and cliché.
Jamaica? They let Bob Marley die.
Honduras? Gang wars.
Haiti? Poverty pies and misery ice cream.
Then the light came on.
Mojitos. Tacos. Guacamole.
Both Cuba and Mexico are close to Miami. Havana is a 1hr 10m flight from Miami. Cancun is 1hr 45m. Return tickets are $200 and $300 respectively. Those prices are not exactly budget-travel friendly. But we are talking about Cuba and Cancun here. I can live with those prices.
Now, to the simple matter of getting a Cuba visa.
Cuba does not do simple.
In retrospect, getting the Cuba visa was straightforward. But for guys like me who tend to overthink stuff and apply too much caution, the visa process was angst-filled.
Only 20 countries are visa-free to Cuba. As you would expect, Nigeria is not among those lucky countries. But rest assured we are in good company. Citizens of the US, the UK, Canada, the EU and about one hundred and seventy-five other countries, also need visas to visit Cuba.
I had read on a couple of websites that you can get a Cuba Tourist Card at your departure airport or from your airline. This ‘tourist card’ allows you to travel to Cuba for up to 30 days for tourist purposes. But I’m Nigerian. We don’t believe good things come easy. Surely, getting a Cuba tourist visa or tourist card can’t be as easy as getting it from a travel agency or an airline? Or can it? 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. Per Google searches, the Cuba Embassy is on Diplomatic Drive in Abuja. But we just couldn’t locate it. The phone numbers didn’t work either. Neither did the email. It was as if the embassy didn’t want to be found. I even wrote the Cuba Foreign Mission in Washington DC. Crickets.
But my resolve was untiring. I shall drink a daiquiri at La Floridita and hug Ernest Hemingway!
I even combed a few streets in Lagos that purportedly housed the Cuban consulate. But no luck. I was beginning to despair.
But after weeks of searching, I struck gold.
The Cuba Foreign Mission in Washington replied to my email.
It turns out I can indeed buy the visa (a Tourist Card) from approved travel agents. Or from the airline if I’m flying directly from the US to Havana. They gave me an email address and phone numbers of an approved travel agent in Miami.
Well, if that isn’t bee’s knees!
It sounded too good to be true. Too easy. But I’m Nigerian. One more check.
As we were flying American Airlines from Miami International Airport to Havana, I reached out to the airline’s office in Havana. I also emailed the travel agent. The Havana office of American Airlines confirmed I can buy the visa (tourist card) at a stand next to their Cuba check-in desk at MIA. The travel agency also confirmed that as long as we had multiple-entry B1/B2 visas, they’ll sell us the tourist card. We could buy it on the day of travel or online in advance. But they will only ship the visas to a US address if I ordered it online.
Deal me up, baby!
The Cuban Tourist Card 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 travel to Cuba for tourism. This tourism prohibition in fact does extend to anyone — American citizen or otherwise — flying to Cuba from a US airport. That includes the missus and I.
The US 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 licenses” and there are twelve of them. The airline requires you to tick one before a ticket is sold to you. You can read more 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. The aim of the US embargo is to starve the Cuban government of funds and hope an economic hardship will make the country reform. Therefore any American or non-American travelling to Cuba from an American airport, cannot stay in a Cuban-government-run hotel. That will be putting money in the pocket of the communist Cuban government. 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. Remember, America’s fight with Cuba is not with the people but with the Cuban government.
(iii). You should only eat in ‘paladares,’ family-owned or private restaurants. Again this puts money directly into ordinary Cubans’ pockets and not the government’s.
(iii). You should only engage in full-time activities that guarantee meaningful exchanges with the Cuban people. You therefore can’t chill on the beach and drink mojitos all day. That’s touristy. It is 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 feathering the nest of the Cuban government. Crazy, isn’t it?
Why does America have it in for Cuba so much? 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 from Havana, the CBP officer only wanted to know if we brought back Cuban cigars, rum or coffee beans. Those items are prohibited by the Department of Treasury. But moi, I like to err on the side of caution. 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.
Now that I knew how to get to Cuba, I still had a nagging fear — a Cuba stamp in my passport.
In 2021, the United States designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism “for repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbour to terrorists.” Many countries of course do not agree with the designation and the lingering embargo on Cuba. But Uncle Sam only listens to Uncle Sam. So the appellation and embargo endure. But will a Cuba entry and exit stamp in my passport impact my future entry into the US or my ability to get a US visa in the future?
Per our itinerary, we’d fly to Havana from Miami. Then fly back to Miami, from where we’d take another flight to Cancun, Mexico. And then from Cancun, we’d fly back to Houston. We would be entering the US three times within nine days. That feels a little odd, doesn’t it? Will our trip to Cuba give us issues with CBP at Miami and Houston? Anecdotally, a few commentators online tended to think so. But the majority of people, most of whom had made the trip themselves and entered the US afterwards with visas, believed it was a non-issue. If anything, the CBP folks may just be envious of you for travelling to Cuba.
My angst was unnecessary. On our return to Miami, the CBP bloke who interviewed us only wanted to know if we brought back cigars, rum or any other contraband items. We didn’t. We were processed in without suspicion or interest.
If I thought we got lucky the first time, our Cuba stamps were greeted with the same disinterest when we flew back to Houston a few days later from Cancun.
So, what was Havana like?
A time warp to the ‘50s.
Crumbling buildings. Sputtering 1950s vehicles. Narrow and dirty streets.
Walking through the streets of Havana felt like walking through a war zone. Many buildings are decaying, the result of austerity and incessant hurricanes (Hurricane Ian hit Cuba one week after we left). This is a city that has been beaten by man and nature. There is privation around every corner.
I find Havana quaint and surreal though. I like real cities.
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. The missus and I have loads of visas and stamps in our passports. Three officials huddled in a corner and scrutinized our passports, casting glances at us as. Perhaps we were spies? Mr and Mrs Smith. Maybe drug dealers or some wanted people. We were after all Nigerians. A senior-looking officer came over to question us. Where were we coming from? What was our mission in Cuba? Where are we staying? How much money do we have on us? How long are we staying in Cuba? Where is our destination after leaving Cuba? I found the questions within the ambit of an immigration officer’s power. I found it all exhilarating and amusing.
Mrs Alade didn’t. She was irritated and angry. If any country was going to deny us entry, it shouldn’t be some broke, dirty and crumbling country that looks like it could do with tourists’ dollars!
Calm down, sweetheart. This is a communist country. Suspicion is second nature.
Our passports were handed back. 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, our 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. Her nails were nicely painted. She was pretty too.
Yea, I guess some people find a king cobra pretty too.
We only spent three days in Havana. I wish I’d planned for more days to venture beyond 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. Per many blog posts and YouTube videos, Cuba was supposed to be an internet blackhole. WiFi was scant and mobile data is regulated and slow. But Santi provided us with a prepaid SIM loaded with data on the house.
I received this offer with mixed emotions. I was hoping that it would indeed be difficult to get on the internet in Havana. No office emails, no WhatsApp messages, no Instagram. Just meaningful human interactions. But I wasn’t going to be afforded such luxuries thanks to Santi. Worse, his apartment also had free Wi-Fi!
You suck, Santi!
Santi also served as our CADECA. CADECAs are state-owned foreign exchange offices. You go to a bank or a CADECA to exchange your foreign currency for Cuban pesos (CUP). $1 exchange for 110 CUP. €1 exchanged for 120 CUP.
These rates are more or less fixed by my research. So it was easy for Santi and I to do business. If I needed to change my euros, I simply texted Santi (using Google Translate) and he comes over with the pesos I need. Santi made our lives very comfortable in Havana.
Havana is a small city. Walking around was easy. I like walking.
What struck 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 safe it was 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.
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 must have 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.
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 perhaps not hedonistic enough to luxuriate in a cigar. But I’ll be remiss to visit Cuba and not learn how its most famous export was 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. Some Chinese car brand. Our driver didn’t speak a word of English as indeed many people in Cuba. 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.
On to Mexico then.
And oh, the birthday girl.