Signal photographer/staff writer Katharine Lotze spent last week in Cuba as part-vacation and part journalist. Earlier this week she reported on her experience watching the presidential Debate and getting reactions from the Cuban people.
It started with a dream.
I’ve studied Spanish since high school, landing on the language not only because of its practicality in the U.S., but also because it is the primary language of many countries around the world.
I’d always wanted to travel, and knew it would help me get around.
Most Spanish-speaking countries are fairly accessible to American travelers – except one: Cuba.
The second closest Spanish-speaking country to the U.S. at just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba has been largely off limits to American travelers since a trade embargo went into effect more than 60 years ago.
Former president George W. Bush increased travel restrictions as late as 2004, only to have those reversed by President Obama’s administration in 2009, and opened even further in 2011 and 2014.
And in August, direct commercial flights from the U.S. resumed to Cuba for the first time since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.
So, in August, my boyfriend, Matt, and I booked our flights, checking the boxes on our official affidavits for a “people-to-people” visit.
Matt and I decided on a layover in Mexico City, which turned out to be an excellent decision, once Hurricane Matthew started brewing in the Atlantic.
In Mexico City, or via their airline, U.S. travelers must purchase a “tourist card,” around $25USD each.
Because of the easing of restrictions, we no longer had to purchase our flights from Mexico to Havana in cash, or decline the Cuban passport stamps upon entry and exit – though the Cuban customs agent still asked.
Matt, a lifelong traveler and collector of passport stamps, could barely contain his excitement.
As we exited the plane onto the jet way, it was clear we were in a tropical nation.
Our glasses, cool from the flight, fogged up immediately. It took us a day or two to adjust to the humidity.
We hailed a cab to our hotel, paying him in U.S. dollars because we hadn’t yet changed any cash – which is the only form of payment available to Americans in Cuba; credit cards do not work.
The taxi driver dropped us off about three blocks away in Old Havana.
Many streets, most of which are cobblestone, are dedicated to pedestrian and bicycle taxi traffic only.
We were greeted with welcome cocktails – mojitos, of course – at our hotel, a restored, government-run colonial building on a historic square.
And we exchanged $300USD for $261CUC.
The Cuban government has imposed somewhat of a tax on American dollars, tacking on an additional 10 percent to the typical 3 percent exchange fee, netting us only 87 cents on the dollar.
Otherwise, it’s a one-to-one exchange rate into the second of Cuba’s two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC (pronounced “kook”), specifically for foreigners.
Cubans themselves use the Cuban Peso, or CUP.
For the first two days, we explored Havana.
From the Hotel Nacional, where President Obama and the first family stayed on their trip to the island in March, to the Havana Club rum museum, we hopped from street to street, mojito to mojito, shooting photos and soaking up the experience.
We made a special point to visit two of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars, El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, to try out the daiquiris and mojitos, respectively.
I’ve never had a better daiquiri, but there are plenty of mojitos in Havana that outshine La Bodeguita’s (but that is another story).
We rode in “taxis privados,” private taxis, which are exactly what you imagine when you think of Havana: classic American cars, kept in working condition and lovingly cared for, since before the embargo forbid their import.
On the third day, we took a taxi to the tobacco-growing region of Vinales, about two hours west of Havana.
It’s a valley straight out of “Jurassic Park,” with giant rounded rocks rising out of the ground, covered in green foliage.
From our hotel on the hill, we were treated to a spectacular sunset on our only night in town.
The next day, we opted to take a guided tour through the region, visiting two caves used long ago by slaves who’d run away from the sugar cane fields, the valley’s most famous view point, and a local tobacco farm, where we purchased cigars rolled by the hands which harvested it.
Cuisine in Cuba
Back in Havana for a night, we were lucky enough to get a reservation at one of the city’s most famous “paladars,” or private restaurants operated out of homes.
La Guarida has been operating since 1996, and serves French-style food indoors in the restaurant, and out on its open-air terrace, where we ate.
We also made a visit to the rooftop bar for sweeping views of the city, and shared a Romeo y Julieta over a glass of Havana Club 7 Años.
Chevys and the Caribbean
The next day, we were treated to views of the ocean along the coastal highway from Havana to the Varadero peninsula, populated by touristy all-inclusive resorts.
Riding along in a blue 1950s Chevy, with ocean on one side, and waves on the other, it was easily one of the most memorable car rides I’ve had.
Though nice for its oceanfront property, if you’re going to Cuba, it’s safe to skip the resort.
After swimming in the crystal clear Caribbean waters and downing a few pre-mixed piña coladas, we were ready to head back to Havana earlier than expected the next day to live it up on our last night.
Of all the things we weren’t able to fit in, like a visit to Hemingway’s Cuban house, I’m glad we didn’t have time for the famous Cuban cabaret, the Tropicana.
The whole week we’d seen nothing but blue skies and beautiful weather, but on Friday night, it rained, hard.
Lucky for us, we were already seated inside an open-air bar and restaurant next door to La Zorra y El Cuervo, a jazz club.
We’d arrived at it two hours prior to opening (oops), in a convertible Chevy Bel Air (whew!).
The place filled up as lightning flashed outside, and we sat, grateful to be under cover, and to spend our last night in Havana doing what we came to do: soak up the experience.