Vintage Cars, Cigars, and Colorful architecture is what comes to the mind of most people when they think about Cuba. But there is so much more. I have been interested in visiting Cuba for several years now — and as US Cuba relations improve, I can just imagine the growth and development that will occur once things are totally normalized. So I wanted to see Cuba before all that changed. It seems to me, that within a few years after the relationship between Cuba and the US is back in full swing, the development will be so great that most of Havana may end up like Cancun or Miami Beach.
The time to travel to Cuba is now.
1. Vintage Cars
Old beautiful vintage cars cruise up and down the broad avenues and seaside roads every day. When people talk about Cuba the vintage cars are usually near the top of the conversation list. I am sure that they are what remained from the start of the US embargo period. These are cars that are 50 to 60 years old now, hundreds of them cruise the streets of Havana, and mostly in tip-top condition.
The pride of ownership shines through.
I asked a couple car owners “what is the biggest challenge with having these cars in Cuba?” The answer was overwhelmingly the car parts. Due to the embargo, I am sure, the auto manufactures were not allowed to send auto parts to Cuba. But the Cubans are nothing if not clever and inventive, good at finding innovative solutions for their challenges. They learned how to rebuild parts, found other sources than the US and had friends coming from the US bring them in their checked luggage.
Maybe even tires — who knows.
They have made a mini-industry out of these cars being an attraction. Some even have new LED headlights and some have brand new engines (like a Toyota engine in a ’59 Ford Fairlane). We were told of one car that replaced their engine with a washing machine motor.
These cars serve as taxi’s, but on an even larger scale they offer 1 or 2 hour tour rides of Havana. When they all convene at one location,it’s a bit like being at a back to the 50’s car show.
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As I prepared for the trip, if people were not asking me about the vintage cars they were asking me about cigars. The tobacco growing industry is very big here.
Cigars are all hand rolled and in high demand around the world.
I stopped at a Cigar store to buy some for friends who asked for them, and the store was packed with people buying boxes of them. I learned that cigar aficionados are very choosy about the kinds of cigars they want, thus the lines to purchase them are long and slow because everyone questions “what’s the best?”
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Baseball is a game that is tightly woven into the culture of both the US and Cuba. It is clearly the top sport in Cuba and if you play it, plus where and when you play is controlled by the Castro regime. That said, there are 18 Cubans now playing in the major leagues, including Yoenis Cespedas. who just played in the World Series for the Mets, and they all had to endure a risky defection to get there. (in fact, because of that defection one of Mr. Cespedas relatives in Cuba has been jailed). Cuba does send some of its players to other countries but the government decides when and where, taking a piece of the action.
Major League Baseball is exploring the possibility of playing exhibition games in Cuba this spring but more importantly, has been working on a system where they can recruit players from Cuba (and its believed there are many more who’s talent is good enough for Major League Baseball), but the Castro regime won’t allow it unless the government gets compensated and that would violate the US Embargo.
Who knows when and if that standoff will ever be resolved.
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4. The US Embargo
Not only are US companies banned from doing business in Cuba but any foreign company doing business with Cuba is not allowed to do business in the US. That explains all the old cars— because if Volkswagen or Honda want to sell in the US they can’t sell to Cuba. It’s also why the cruise ships don’t stop here — yet. Almost every Caribbean cruise carries many U.S passengers. If a cruise ship docked in Cuban ports the embargo prohibits them from docking in the US for 6 months.
That is going to soon change.
Cuba, until Raul took over, was 100% socialist. Now only 85% of the people work for the state. The demand for tourism is so great they are allowing people to put their homes on Airbnb. They are also allowing people to start restaurants. As you would surmise, no one can really afford to start a traditional restaurant so they start with a couple tables in the living rooms of their homes and make the meals in their home kitchens. If it goes well they may take over another room in the home or Apartment and in some cases they were successful enough that they moved to a new home or Apartment and let the entire home become a small restaurant. We ate in one, The Magic Flute, on the 19th floor of an Apartment building, just across from the US Embassy with a capacity of about 40 or 50. It was outstanding.
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The music in Cuba is worth the trip all by itself. We heard several jazz bands that are world class. Progressive jazz, Afro Cuban jazz and much more. A very few of the lucky ones are allowed to leave Cuba to do tour dates, but the hoops a Cuban citizen has to go through to get a visa to leave are overwhelming. At the jazz club, La Zorra El Cuervo, we heard the contemporary jazz group Jazz En Trance.
These guys were world class.
Then we went to Pastorita performing arts high school in Matanzas, and heard several students play short recitals for us. Everything is paid for by the Government, including room and board and the instrument they are studying.
There are only 4 recording studios in Havana and they are all very busy. We visited Abdala, where Beuna Vista Social Club recorded, is the largest and most prestigious. I asked a couple of the musicians what the biggest challenge of being a musician was in Cuba. We heard about the problems with the economy and communism and travel restrictions but the guitar player told us there is no place in Cuba where they can buy guitar strings. I am sure it has to do with years of trade embargo with the US. If you go to Cuba pack a few sets of guitar strings in your bag, it will be easy to find someone who will greatly appreciate the gift.
Despite the oppressive government policies, people of Cuba that we met seem to be happy and joyful.
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Larry Berle is a travel writer who writes on many travel topics but specializes in golf travel. He is author of A Golfers Dream: How a Regular Guy Conquered the Golf Digest List of America’s Top 100 Golf Courses. Learn more about his book at www.GolfersDreamBook.com