I’ve just returned from traveling for a month in Cuba, a country that is so close (a 42- minute flight from Miami), and yet so far away, a mystery, due to the US 60-year-old embargo on trade with Cuba. When I received an invitation to join a small group of six for a six-day tour, I said yes, and then wondered aloud whether there might be a Cuba Servas, and whether I could meet up with day hosts or possibly *overnight hosts, at least for a couple nights to get myself acclimated. I turned to the US Servas office for help and was so pleased to get in contact with the Cuban National Secretary (and host), Michel Sanz, and to stay with him the first two nights that I arrived in Havana. (Photo at bottom: Michel Sanz and daughter, Samila.)
I started traveling with Servas in 1985 to Europe, and more recently had served as a host in Sarasota, FL for many years and, what I find so intriguing and wonderful about the Servas experience is that wherever one goes, the visits are much the same: the words curiosity, generosity and trust come to mind. And so it was upon arrival at Michel’s. There he was, waiting for me on the corner of the cross-street, just as the taxi driver was starting to slow to a crawl. Michel grabbed one of my bags and I followed him upstairs to his small apartment. An extra bonus is that he had his two children staying with him for a while, and we were cozy sharing his place. The next morning he took me out for morning espresso, to help me change currency, and to acclimate me to the bus routes, taxi costs, and pointed me towards Old Havana. Michel primarily works as a guide to Cuba, it seemed most often with groups from France. He had his hands full with caring for his children, but lucky me, I find that one of life’s greatest joys is walking every inch of a city, even getting lost (and found), and this was especially true walking the remarkable historic, crumbling, restoring city of Havana.
Since my return just days ago, I’ve spoken with others who have been to Cuba, about our overall impressions. One friend told me that, as a single woman walking Old Havana, she noticed how safe she felt, that she wasn’t always looking around in caution. Indeed, I noticed this too, no matter where I roamed, and I’ve been told that Cuba is one of the safest countries in which to travel. It’s true that guns are illegal – perhaps that makes for a more peaceful culture, but I noticed two things in particular that account for how easy it feels to travel there: 1) people are out and about, mingling on the streets, in the parks, gathered around a salsa band playing in the doorway or on the patio every few blocks. The children run freer in the parks, playing “soccer” with nothing more than a soda bottle cap with the adults filling the benches, working their smartphones -- nearly every park being a wifi hot spot.; 2) and an overall affection and friendliness with cheek-to-cheek greetings among and between all generations and combinations of friends.
Havana is clearly a city (overall population 2 million) but Old Havana is smaller, organic, walk able, 500-years-old. There are interesting museums, the Art Museum of the Revolution among them, and the 3-mile walk along the famed Malecon (promenade) along the Gulf of Mexico to the newer neighborhood of Vedado offered a change of pace and a must-do tour of the Hotel National to glimpse the glitzier side of Havana of yore, when rich American plantation holders and mobsters ruled the roost prior to the 1961 revolution.
Cuba is a big country, nearly 800 miles long, and its geographic, climate and mix of cultures is quite diverse. The easiest way to travel longer distances is by taxi collective. A casa owner will typically make a reservation for you and the service is door-to-door. A private taxi is double, the tourist bus line, Viazul, about one-half the price. For instance, I traveled by taxi collective west to Vinales from Havana for $25; my return trip to Havana by bus was $12. However, when comparing the door-to-door service of the taxi collective and the need to make bus reservations in advance and needing to take a taxi to your destination upon arrival, I feel they come out about even.
Depending upon the length of your stay and how fast a pace you want to maintain, there are options. One could easily spend a busy and yet leisurely week in Havana, but I was in Cuba for a month, and feel it’s well worth the time to get outside the city if only for an overnight here, and overnight there. I traveled with my group to Ceinfuegos, known as “The Pearl of the South,” and for good reason. En route, we stopped at the Bay of Pigs and toured the museum there. The story of the revolution, and the botched attempt to overthrow the Castro government by the CIA is very much the story of modern Cuba. Whatever one’s politics, it’s widely accepted that pre-Castro Cuba was one of corruption, decadence on one hand, squalor, abject poverty and malnourished on the other.
Havana Jazz Festival:
Again, my Servas host Michel came to the rescue. Several weeks before I was to fly to Havana, I got wind of the Havana Jazz Festival – and I was jazzed. I asked Michel: “Can you get me tickets?” And he did, front row, aisle seat, in the restored Jose Marti Theater, the exclusive closing concert.
Farming & Vinales:
One of my key interests in visiting Cuba was to discover the World Heritage sites and the rural areas, farms, protected areas, and national parks. This quest led me to the west to Pinar del Rio region, where I stayed in Vinales for 5-nights in a comfortable casa particular for $10/night. In retrospect, this stay may have been the highlight of my tour. My host family were so friendly and caring! They arranged a horseback ride deep into farming and protected lands, arranged a farm visit where I learned about their natural (“organic”) methods of growing crops from coffee to guavas to tobacco to bee-keeping practices that helped them eke out their living.
Signing off, I’m wondering how best to sum up my experience in a few words, and this is what I’ve come up with. Cuba is close. Cuba has history. You’ll be fascinated and you’ll feel safe.
And, lastly, keep your eyes open, your caution hat on – and smile often.
Richard Martin is a Servas travel and host member based in Bakersville, NC
*Note: Due to government regulations, a homeowner must be licensed and charge a fee to have someone other than a Cuban national stay with them. This includes a Servas traveler with a typical fee in the $10-25/night price range.
*This article lightly edited by Tawny, on staff with US Servas.