I plan travel for a living.
Booking myself a research trip to Havana, Cuba would surely be a cake walk. With tourism opportunities expanding for Americans, I wanted to go down and tour various hotels, try different excursion agencies and set up relationships for my clients’ future trips. I soon discovered, the term “Island Time” in Cuba is on a different level. Yes, the typical lackadaisical speed of islanders is at play but when the businesses you’re dealing with can only get online 2-3 times a week, planning is a challenge. A custom trip to Cuba requires patience and the ability to go without all I’s dotted and T’s crossed.
Up to a few days before going, I had considering scrapping it altogether. Changing US Government regulations paired with general frustration over making plans official, it seemed almost not worth it. I had a looming sense this could be a disaster of a trip but in the end, we went…though hesitantly.
After checking in to our hotel, the dazzling Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski la Habana whose lengthy name is as grand as she is, we decided to stroll around a bit. I don’t hide my gringo very well and almost instantly was sucked into conversation offering anything from black market booze, cigars or “companionship” of many varieties, all “just over here in my cousin’s place”. Ditching the offer, more came, every 10 steps it seemed and all “in my cousin’s place”. Perhaps there really is a place called, “My Cousin’s Place”, but I doubt it. Overwhelmed, I thought as I looked out on the decaying city that I would spend my week going no farther than sight of my hotel haven.
Fortunately, we stuck with our plans to meet Frank, a local tour guide to show us the city. Frank’s perfect English in tow, he immediately explained, “nothing in Cuba is as it first appears”. For instance, the streets may look unsafe at first, but they are not. His statement set the tone for the rest of our trip and he walked us through neighborhoods we’d never dream of exploring, pointing out fascinating details one after the other. “Can we walk here on our own, at night” we asked Frank. “Yep. Just be smart like any city you visit”, he said.
One minute we were in a place that appeared as though a bomb had been dropped. The next a cobblestone paved European style square lined with cafés, music and artisans peddling goods in the shadow of a cathedral. The new Cuba, Frank explained, is seeing a surge in the bohemian, artisan culture and independent businesses are popping up. Every one of them lives or dies on tourist dollars.
My biggest fear in visiting Cuba was that I wouldn’t be able to connect to the place and the people. So, we peppered Frank with question after question, trying to make a connection and get a sense of understanding. We talked about his life, his thoughts on the current government and the historic revolution when Fidel took power. What did it mean to him? What did he think of the US involvement? Mind you, Frank is one voice in a country of over 11 million. But his voice matters. All we know is what we hear in the US media so we took this Havana natives’ words in like a sponge.
Perhaps the moment I’ll remember most was as we walked along one of those decaying streets. Frank pointed out a painting with a bench below and said how much it meant to him. He passes it often on his tours. The painting is a Cuban flag done in faded grey and charcoal tones; Not the vivid colors of the actual flag. And on the stone bench below he says, there are usually 2 or 3 people sleeping. For him, it’s a symbol. The flag of the country he loves, dulled in its grandeur, hovering over the sleeping people. We would soon discover for ourselves just how symbolic that image was...
Frank had saved our trip with his insight into the overwhelming city of Havana. Truthfully, we would have loved having him along for the rest of our trip and you can do just that if you plan ahead. Although we didn’t have him along for the rest of our explorations, his words stuck with us everywhere we went and shaped the way we interpreted what we encountered.
If someone asks you for money saying they’re hungry or homeless in Cuba, take it with a grain of salt as they likely aren’t. The government, no matter what your opinion of it, does provide basic food and housing for every single Cuban. It may not be the best food and the loveliest of home, but they’re provided for all.
Discrimination exists in Cuba but not for the color of your skin. Many businesses are there strictly for the tourists and very few Cubans are allowed to patronize them, much less afford what’s on offer. The sparkling new shopping area by our hotel was referred to as “The Museum” by locals, selling a Canon camera for $7,000 and a Bulgari watch for $10,000. Locals earning an average government salary of $25 a month stroll past, pausing for a selfie with the glamorous goods in the windows.
Just as Americans choose their political sides the Cuban people do as well for their own reasons. Something that really stuck out, no matter which side they were on is that if nothing else changed, the average salary needs to go up. Nevertheless, whatever their political affiliation we found the Cuban people gracious, friendly and delightful to spend time with. They love meeting Americans and even if your visit with them is brief, you’ll walk away knowing one thing. Cubans are proud to be Cuban.
There were several “must-do” things on our list and The Museum of The Revolution should top your list. It’s a surreal experience as an American to tour a monument that doesn’t paint your beloved homeland in the best of lights. Although a classic study in government propaganda, I kept an open mind to grasp what their government thought about the US involvement in their revolution. It was fascinating and eye opening. Housed in the former Presidential Palace of Fulgencio Batista and seen as a symbol of corruption, the palace was a constant target of revolutionary violence and still bears the scars, it’s walls riddled with bullet holes.
The Gran Teatro de La Habana, The National Theater. Breath…officially taken. One of several government restoration projects, this spectacular edifice holds its own against all I’ve seen in America and Europe. The façade is magnificent, decorated with sculptures of marble and bronze featuring four groups of statuary representing charity, education, music and theater. Home to the famous Cuban National Ballet, her 1500 seats are just a part of this enormous building, constructed to serve as a cultural hub. Open since 1915 and now housing several rotating art galleries, a guided tour is your best bet in exploring the palatial building.
Dog lovers that we are, some research led us to The Aniplant Project, a group of animal lovers and volunteer veterinarians who exhaust every resource at their disposal to medically treat and adopt out as many dogs as they can. We packed an extra suitcase with things they simply can’t get like gauze, syringes and antiseptic. Calling upon their humble clinic we encountered a basic but spotless facility. A small colony of un-adoptable pups lives on site, headed by house dog “Cuba”. He runs the show and makes sure you know it. While our visit was brief and burdened by language, we managed to convey our gratitude for their work and theirs for our gifts. Very little words were needed for respect to be shared and a connection made evidenced by tears, shed as we left.
Many Americans long to see Cuba and many do not. At least not until their government changes.
Fielding many rumors, uncertainties and the unstable relationship the US has with Cuba we still chose to go. And while it wasn’t love at first sight, with the help of an amazing guide named Frank, we departed Cuba feeling educated, enlightened and unexpectedly changed.
Frankly, Havana…we can’t wait to see you again.
Images from Cuba
London, Paris, Rome… Dream destinations for some and “been there, done that” for others. Popular destinations are popular for a reason. They’re easy to get to, and there’s a slew of information and advice from fellow travelers who have been and can tell you the best things to see and do. Their shops, restaurants and museums are well documented and the lines to see them can be legendarily long. But what happens when you feel like you’ve already been everywhere or you’re simply uninspired about your next destination? Enter the travel industry buzz-term d’jour, ”emerging destinations”.
Emerging destinations are not new places to visit. They’ve been there all along but for various reasons haven’t been popular for tourist travel. Perhaps getting there was difficult or a reputation for being unsafe kept them off your bucket list. Maybe they’ve been easy to reach and safe all along but have just been standing there like the shy girl against the wall at a school dance…afraid to speak up and be noticed for the great beauty she is. Shy no more, emerging destinations are speaking up by investing in infrastructure, advertising, safety and getting the word out about why you should visit.
The list of places considered emerging is quite long, but let’s focus on three generating a lot of buzz.
Cuba. The lady of the hour. You’ve heard a lot about Cuba lately but it’s still technically illegal to visit unless you’re on a sanctioned trip for one of about a dozen reasons. Airlines and cruise ships are making it easier, helping with the proper paperwork to ensure you stay out of trouble with the government. For the time being, visiting Cuba with visions of lounging on the beach is still illegal and tourist feedback is mixed. Some delight in seeing the lavish but crumbling architecture, the meticulously maintained classic cars and interacting with the Cuban people. But others say there’s still an uncomfortable political tension permeating the air and that the tourist infrastructure simply isn’t ready for American expectations. Kempinski Hotels, a luxury leader in Europe and around the globe plans to change the perception that Cuba has no luxurious accommodations with the opening of the gleaming Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana. We're visiting soon to try her out on her promises.
Colombia. Business breeds business and Colombia’s entry onto the list of hot places to visit is partially fueled by business travelers going for work in one of South America’s most thriving economies. When they aren’t working, they’re taking notice of what Colombia has to offer from spectacular colonial cities, to beach towns busting with culture and nightlife. Most people don’t realize the often snowcapped peaks of the Andes Mountains reach well into Colombia offering a vastly different landscape from the perception of palm trees and sweltering temperatures. Big cities like Cartagena on the coast and Bogota in the mountains are luring travelers in increasing numbers year over year. The luxury Four Seasons hotel chain believes in the country so much, they recently debuted two new properties. The Four Seasons Bogota and the Four Seasons Casa Medina.
Romania. The dark seductress of Europe. Romania suffers from a perception problem but this is a land of villages that look plucked from a fairytale and the Carpathian mountains, home to legendary Vlad the Impaler, AKA Dracula (perhaps part of that perception problem). In a short amount of time you can travel from the Danube river, to the capitol city of Bucharest and out to the Black Sea, taking time to stop in medieval towns and visit storied monasteries once viewed as safe havens from the clutches of the vampires still rumored to come out at night. Romania is a striking country with fascinating architecture stemming from being at a crossroads of eastern and western Europe. If you’re seeking a chance to seemingly step back in time…Romania will delight without hurting your wallet.
These are just a few examples, but emerging destinations offer an exciting opportunity to see new places and experience things that your neighbors haven’t yet. Don’t rule them out when thinking about your next trip. Just remember that although they are trending, they may not have the creature comforts you expect, like a Starbucks on every corner. But with an adventurers’ spirit and open mind, a trip to an emerging destination might be the greatest journey you’ll ever take.
We're going places and so are our clients.