Cuba is surely my most asked about destination when it come to recent travels. The most common question is, “Should I go now or wait?” In answering today, I’m using a quote from an article named “Viva Cuba”in a Wine Enthusiast magazine from last November. “Amid ramshackle graffiti-covered buildings and classic cars, the rough edges made it all the more beautiful.” If you like ‘rough edges’, go now.
Ruth and I went with Fathom. This is a subsidiary cruise line of Carnival Corporation begun in 2013 by Tara Russell to promote what she calls Voluntourism. Current guidelines say that U. S. Citizens can go to Cuba only if it’s purposeful travel. There are 12 categories generally listed under an educational “people-to-people” banner. The Fathom staff told us often to seek interaction with the people, but then they took us to state controlled stores, issued constant warnings. and put us on tour busses with Cuban hosts who had been carefully screened and trained. One wary female tour guide told us that she had to answer lots of questions about her reasons for applying for her job. Most of our guides delicately answered questions that cast the current government and system in a favorable light.
Fathom, I learned on the cruise’s last day, will suspend further trips to Cuba on May 28, 2017, despite mostly positive reviews. Their website says the suspension will occur in early June. No reasons were given when I asked as our hosts were scrambling to find jobs. Fathom was the first American cruise line to Cuba after the embargo was lifted. Royal Caribbean is taking its place. “Be one of the first to cruise to Cuba; book now,” it shouts on its website. We know a couple who is taking the same cruise we did before they end, and Ruth knows another husband and wife who loved their recent non-Fathom trip to Cuba.
Alaska Air flies into Havana as of January, 2017. American Airlines and JetBlue fly into my favorites Cuban city, Cienfuegos. Nicknamed the Paris of the Caribbean, Cienfuegos has a gorgeous natural harbor. As we were sailing into it, we could see an unfinished Soviet nuclear power plant in the distance.
The Fathom crew told us to be careful when buying cigars. They said to only purchase them in licensed, certified shops because false ones made from banana leaves were offered to tourists by unscrupulous street vendors. They told us to negotiate a ride in a classic American car before getting in. They said to spend no more than $50 for an hour. A teacher makes 14 cucs a month here. That’s equal to 14 US dollars. Few Cubans can afford a new car. The year 2013 was the first one since 1959 that Cubans were permitted to buy new cars.
The first American chain hotel in Cuba since the thaw is Starwood. It opened a Four Points by Sheraton in Havana. This was once the Quinta Avenida in the Miramar District and was owned by the Cuban military. In 1760 Havana was larger than Boston and New York City. It now has more than 2 million residents.
When it comes to Cuba, we still have far more questions than answers. Desi Arnaz used to sing a song called “Babalu” as part of his Tropicana act. I assumed it was a popular Cuban standard. I now know that a Babaloo is a priest of the the highest rank in the Santeria religion and that this song summons the presence of the Lord of Healing.