Monday, 8:00 am
I started out planning this trip to Cuba feeling excited. It always seemed like one of those forbidden, exotic places I’d never get to visit. So when I learned about this tour, I jumped on the opportunity. And I’ve rarely experienced the kind of thrilled anticipation about a trip as I felt about this one.
I asked my friend Cathy if she’d like to join me, and when she said yes, we signed up together. She flew down from Seattle, arriving Friday morning, and I had two days to give her an overview of Ajijic and environs before our Cuban adventure began. All through that time, we kept interrupting our experience with breathless utterances: “We’re going to Cuba!”
Now here I am. And my excitement has turned into enchantment.
Our flight from Guadalajara departed at 6:50 am yesterday, so the tour company arranged for us all to stay overnight in a hotel by the airport. We flew from GDL to Mexico City and then to Havana.
There were lots of forms. Charter Club took care of getting our visas (we just had to provide photocopies of our passports), so that required no effort at all. First was the Mexican immigration form, which non-citizen residents have to fill out every time they leave and visitors have to fill out when they arrive. Next was the form from the US State Department we had to fill out before boarding the flight in MEX describing the purpose of our visit. (Tourism isn’t an acceptable purpose for US citizens to visit Cuba, so we checked “Educational program.”) And then on the airplane they passed out the customs form.
Arrival in Havana and going through immigration was really quite easy. Our guides reminded us to ask the immigration officials not to stamp our passports. Going through customs was even easier; they just took our forms and we walked out and met our local guide, Felix.
It was a half-hour drive in a very comfortable bus, which here they call a “guagua.” Every single tour bus has the same company logo: TransTur. I assume this is the official tour company.
The Hotel Nacional, where we are staying, is stunning. When we arrived we had a short tour and learned a little of the history of the hotel. Built by the Americans and opened in 1930, it has hosted famous people from Hollywood, various Mafia figures, and presidents of countries from all over the world (except the United States).
Following the tour we got a welcome mojitoj. Cathy and I took ours and went out to enjoy the garden, with its fantastic view of the Caribbean Sea. Then we went up to our room. We have a spectacular view of the garden and the waves crashing onto the Malecon.
After getting settled in, we were ready for dinner. I went through TripAdvisor and settled on a restaurant called WOOW, about half a kilometer from the hotel. Google Maps didn’t get the directions quite right, but we found it, and it was absolutely fantastic. We shared an appetizer of fried plantains with shredded pork. I had pan-fried octopus and Cathy had ropa vieja. And we had two desserts, a coconut custard and a cheesecake that were both delicious. And for beverages, Cathy had a mojito that was far better than the ones they served us at the hotel. I had a canchánchara. (Two, actually.)
On the way back from dinner, we passed what looked like a movie theatre, and a young man who overheard our conversation said, “Yes, it’s a cinema.” He then engaged us in conversation as we walked, asking where we are from. “Oh, today is your Superbowl,” he said, but he explained he has no understanding of the rules of American football. Cuba, he reminded us, is all about baseball. After a block he headed off in a different direction and wished us happy travels.
We walked on and were “accosted” by another local who turned out to be a jazz musician named Alex. He walked with us for a while and pointed out the jazz club where he is playing his sax tonight, and he recommended several things to see and do during our visit to Havana.
- People are extremely friendly.
- English is very widely spoken.
- No one seems impressed or surprised by visitors from the US. Of course, Canadians and Europeans have always been free to visit, and we probably all look alike to them.
- I expected a crumbling infrastructure, food shortages, and ubiquitous poverty. Maybe it’s the neighborhood where our hotel is located, but I’ve seen none of the above. The breakfast this morning was a massive buffet. Dinner last night was fabulous.
This morning we’re off on a tour. I’ll have more to report later.
Monday 9:00 pm
… and Exhausted.
It was a long and wonderful day. But that’s a story for the next blog post.