Cuba: How to get there ahead of the American tourist invasion

Visiting Cuba before it completely opens to U.S. travelers – and to McDonald’s – was a race against the clock, from what I had read. So, in the spring, when no one I knew could commit to a trip, I decided to go it alone.

Pricey charter flights were the only direct option to the communist country seemingly stuck 50 years in the past – commercial flights from the U.S. will fly soon – so, I booked a trip from LAX to Mexico City. There, at a check-in kiosk for a Cubana de Aviación flight to Havana, I showed my U.S. passport to a woman who copied down my information on a small slip of paper and asked me for $25. That was my visa to Cuba.

At small José Martí International Airport in Havana, I showed an airport official my U.S. passport as well as the visa. He asked if I wanted the visa stamped instead of my passport, but I said both were fine, since I was traveling for one of a dozen permitted reasons (journalism).

Outside the airport, I exchanged $400 for Cuban convertible pesos, or CUC, which tourists use and are different from the lower-value peso that locals use. Though $1 converts to 1 CUC, I only got 348 CUC after service charges. I hopped into a taxi and gave the driver the address of a place I found to stay at in Centro Havana for $25 a night through Airbnb.

I figured knocking on the door and asking for Manolito, the host whom I had booked with, wouldn’t be too daunting because I’m fluent in Spanish. He was already sitting on the sidewalk waiting for me. Manolito said his house was not available, and walked me to a multiple-story building across from his to meet Frank Martinez, owner of another casa particular, a home with rooms rented to tourists.

Frank, a cook, and his wife, Marilis, a doctor, were extremely warm and welcoming, contrary to stories I had heard of Cubans despising Americans because capitalism allows us to be so well-off. They let me pick a room in their apartment, several stories up, that faced the Malecón, a broad esplanade along the coast.

For the remainder of the day, I wandered around Havana with a paper map and no GPS, since activating a cellphone is complicated and costly. Using street signs, but moreso the waterfront as a reference point, I navigated from Chinatown into the neighborhood of Vedado and walked into the luxurious, historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and many others stayed. As the sun began setting, I made my way back to Frank’s house on the Malecón, which came to life with locals hanging out, talking and drinking.

The excursion confirmed what I heard – that Cuba is very safe, even for females, to walk around solo at any time of the day and night. In the communist country, police come down particularly hard on violent crimes against tourists, so it’s probably one of the safest places for foreigners in the Caribbean. That night, I headed to El Bodeguita del Medio and tried the mojito – obligatory, according to what Ernest Hemingway may or may not have written: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.”

Since I planned for only five days in Cuba and wanted to venture outside Havana, I decided to join another visiting guest at Frank’s house on a day trip to Matanzas, a province east of Havana. We took a small boat across the Havana bay to Casablanca, where we bought tickets for a train that afternoon. In the meantime, we walked up a hill to see a house filled with Che Guevara memorabilia, the towering Christ of Havana statue and an old, cannon-equipped castle.

The train to Matanzas was an adventure from the past, moving slowly through rural parts of the country and breaking down a couple of times. Both times, crew members climbed on top and hammered at the overhead wires until it ran again. From Matanzas, a much smaller city than Havana, we took a bus to Varadero, known for its beaches and resorts. The white sands and colorful hotels along them seemed almost like South Beach Miami, but more quaint. Luckily, we caught the last bus back to Havana.

My third day in Cuba was much simpler – I bought a tour to Viñales Valley, known for its green scenery. An air-conditioned bus picked me and other tourists up outside of a hotel and shuttled us first to a rum factory, where we got a taste of the strong drink. Then we had a traditional pork lunch beside a colorful mural on the prehistoric origins of the region, painted on a mountainside. Afterward, the tour guide brought us to a cigar plant and we watched a worker roll tobacco. The tourist experience ended with a boat ride through the Cueva del Indio cave. Back in Havana, I visited El Floridita for the second obligatory drink – Hemingway’s daiquiri.

There was no tour for the next two days to Cienfuegos or Trinidad, cities south of Havana, but I was determined to go, so early in the morning, I flagged down a classic American car – a more fun and cheaper ride than a taxi – to take me to the Víazul bus station for cross-country trips.

It turned out I missed the earliest buses, so I took a Brazilian tourist’s word and joined her on a shared ride in a Cuban’s car to Cienfuegos that cost about the same as a bus ticket. I was a bit nervous about going on the black market ride, but my new travel buddy, Ludmila Curi, said it was a common alternative for tourists. The driver picked up his wife and daughter and stopped at a few points of interest in Cienfuegos, including the historic Parque José Martí.

We got into Trinidad, a colorful colonial town with cobblestone streets, by mid-afternoon. Ludmila and I ate a fish plate at a nice restaurant and then found a room at a casa particular to share by talking to some locals. The room had a rooftop balcony with a spectacular view, and walking the streets of the hilly town around sunset was breathtaking.

Nightlife in Trinidad was surprisingly contemporary. Comedians joked at some of the changes happening in Cuba, underscored by President Barack Obama’s historic visit a couple weeks prior, and a free concert by the Rolling Stones a few days earlier. A drag show was packed to capacity.

I left the next morning on a shared ride with some European tourists back to the capital city, and spent the rest of the day exploring parts of Old Havana. Back at Frank’s house, I joined him and other guests on the rooftop of his tall building to watch the nightly 9 p.m. cannon blast from across the bay, a tradition harking back to the days when it was a signal that the gates of Havana would be closed to protect the city from invaders.

Since it was my last night in Cuba, I took a shared ride to the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a museum I was told was popular with locals too. Unlike most of Cuba I experienced, this was like a step into the future, or actually the present in our country. The building looked old from the outside but was very modern inside, with striking artwork.

What most caught my eye was a series of prints called “Hotel Habana” by Liudmila & Nelson, juxtaposing present-day Havana with what it may look like when it’s completely open to the U.S. One work, “Malecón,” had a “Welcome to Fabulous La Habana” parody of the famous Las Vegas sign, a McDonald’s sign, a “Revolution” sky banner written in Coca-Cola font and the Golden Gate Bridge. It nailed exactly why I was glad I made it to Cuba when I did.

But as Frank walked me down the steps of his building a few hours later to catch my flight back to Mexico and then the U.S., he enlightened me on something I had not thought of as an American tourist – even though I was aware that the government gave everyone, regardless of profession, the same meager monthly income.

I asked Frank if he was looking forward to the changes Americans will presumably bring. “Yes,” he said in Spanish as he helped me with my duffel bag and put it inside the yellow cab he had called for me.

“We are 50 years in the past,” Frank said. “It’s good that people come and see, but it’s time for change. There’s no way to achieve success here.”