It was the evening before Mother’s Day and I was on a red-eye flight en route to Miami. Our group of 26 travel professionals and spouses/family members traveling from various US cities. For most of us, this would be our first trip to Cuba, this was a people-to-people vacation. Also, it was a educational trip for Travel Consultants and the itinerary was packed.
After checking into my room at the Crown Plaza Miami International Airport Hotel, it was time for a meal. I ate at the crowded Latin Café across the street. My meal included rice and black beans which looked similar to Jamaican rice and peas. I was told this was a Cuban stable. While in Cuba, I would discover that the dish is plated the same way we plate red beans and rice (that’s red beans over the rice).
We met for our briefing on Sunday evening in one of the hotel conference rooms. Tracy, our tour manager, asked us to introduce ourselves. The introductions were followed by a discussion on exchanging money, bottled water, and credit cards (Cuba was not ready to process US credit cards at the time of our trip). Our travel documents were distributed and the night ended with hors d’oeuvres and drinks.
On Monday morning, we took the hotel shuttle back to the airport. We lined-up to check our bags and waited to receive our boarding passes. Once they were received, we went through security and waited to board our plane. The wait for the plane was longer than flying to Havana. The flight was not late, we just arrived at the airport very early.
On the ground in Cuba, we went through Immigration, got our
luggage, and Customs. Our guide in Cuban, Ari, and driver, Hansun, were waiting for us outside. While riding to Old Havana, Ari explained the sites and told us about exchanging money. In Cuba there are 2 forms of currency: Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and Cuban Peso (1 CUC = 24 pesos). CUC (pronounced cooks) are used by tourists. You are charged for exchanging US currency to CUC, it was 13% during our visit ($100 = 87 CUC). There was no charge for exchanging Euros or Canadian currency. It is believed Cuba will return to a single currency by the end of this year.
We arrived in Old Havana and started walking. We went to the Café del Oriente restaurant for lunch, it’s government owned. We ate upstairs and were entertained by a jazz trio (I should have purchased their CD). The lunch was delicious, the dessert was an unexpected delight (guava and papaya with a rich chocolate cake). We continued our walking tour of Old Havana, see my Day 1 photos. Some sections of Old Havana reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Then, we boarded our bus and went to our hotel to check-in.
We would be staying at the Meliá Cohiba Hotel for the next 4 days. My room was spacious and comfortable with a fabulous view of the Atlantic Ocean. I had enough time to do some unpacking, then it was time for the lecture. A professor from the University of Havana, Jorge Mario Sanchez, talked to us about the Cuban economy and the potential impact on tourism with the influx of Americans. The Q&A was beneficial. The elephant in the room question was, Will Cuba benefit or be changed culturally because of American’s coming to the country? No one knows at this time but emotions were high on both sides.
We had dinner at our first paladar, a privately owned restaurant named Decamerón. Our meals usually included a welcome drink which could be with or without alcohol. Paladars were once homes that have been converted to restaurants. This one had an array of clocks on the walls. We walked back to our hotel and I returned to my room for some much needed rest.
Have you been thinking about going to Cuba? If so, you should go soon while Cuba is still Cuba. Are you interested? We would love to help you get there!