Cuba, at last

What to expect now that travel restrictions have been (semi) officially lifted.

Classic American cars from the '40s and '50s are Havana's de facto mode of transportation.
  • Classic American cars from the '40s and '50s are Havana's de facto mode of transportation.

Another transportation option.

Another transportation option.

Are you a bit curious as to what Cuba is really like, now that we Americans can get there more easily since the U.S. embargo has been somewhat lifted?

Having been to Cuba "illegally" a few times – my first in 1989 – my recent trip in December 2015 was done legally, and I'm pleased to let you know all about this captivating island.

In December I flew from LAX on the first direct charter flight from the West Coast to Havana. The American Airlines charter had 133 passengers, mostly Cuban Americans, and leaves every Saturday from AA gate 41 at 12:30pm.

This flight is arranged by CubaTravelServices.com, a Los Angeles–based company that's taken Americans to Cuba legally for years. You can arrange airfare, visa and fees through CTS. Including all taxes the total comes to $960 for a week, Saturday to Saturday. Arrival into Havana is 8:30 p.m. EST.

The author by the beach in a 1929 Ford.

The author by the beach in a 1929 Ford.

What to expect

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is more than just cigars and 1950s cars. It has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, along with some of the best fishing, diving and music culture in the world. Its countryside is green, fertile, and welcoming to all.

I would suggest you visit Cuba sooner than later, though; as many as 10 million Americans are projected to visit yearly once the embargo is lifted totally. That number might overwhelm Cuba's infrastructure... which it's working on, since an estimated 700,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2014. New upscale hotels are going up to accommodate more travelers.

Havana has 3 million of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants, and is the hub for its number-one industry: tourism. It's also Cuba's center for commerce, music, dance, and the theatre scene. Havana has the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cuba; you'll see some beautiful historic buildings being restored in the capital.

Cuba was the #1 tourist destination in the Caribbean for Americans in the '40s and '50s, so if you're curious as to why, and what to see once you're there, here are a few ideas.

What to do and see

Havana's International Jazz Festival is one of the top jazz fests in the world. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans played there last year. And Mick Jagger, Katy Perry, Rhianna, Usher, and Jimmy Buffet have all been seen "clubbing" in Cuba... stay tuned.

Speaking of famous: Ernest Hemingway's former home is outside Havana, where you can also check out his fishing boat, Pilar, which he used to win two fishing tournaments off Cuba. That tournament is now named after him, and since 1950 is one of the oldest and most prestigious fishing tournaments in the world.

Hemingway also left his mark on two famous bars that quenched his thirst, and are known for inventing famous drinks: The daiquiri was invented with Hemingway's help at La Floridita, which Hemingway called the best bar in the world. And the bar La Bodeguita del Medio invented the mojito. Hemingway's photo is up at both places.

If you'd like to see a spectacular floor show, get a ticket to the Tropicana Club's show, set among tropical garden trees in an open-air "stage." It's been entertaining crowds since 1939. New York's Tropicana was named after the Cuban version.

Cuba's national sport is baseball, baseball, and baseball. And nowhere in the world are actual amateurs as good as those on the Cuban national team, frequently one of the top three teams at the Olympics. Catch future MLB stars around the island for as little as a nickel, or sit behind home plate for $5. The Industrialists are Havana's team.

Since the embargo began in 1959, Cuba was restricted from importing cars from the U.S. That's why in Havana alone, you'll see the most cars from the '20s to the '50s still on the road in one place at one time. How they keep them running is amazing.

A word about cigars, Cuba's second biggest business after tourism: Tobacco (cohiba) was grown commercially after 1580, and by 1700 was Cuba's #1 export. Over 70 million are exported yearly, and Cuba's oldest factory is Partagas, since 1945, which you can visit.

Locals gather on a Havana street. The city is relatively safe to walk at night.

Locals gather on a Havana street. The city is relatively safe to walk at night.

If you go

Cuba is as safe as any country I've been to, and I've been to 130. You can walk around at night without fear, and its streets are cleaner than Tijuana. Some buildings look dirty just because they're so old.

After my recent visit, what touched me most were the Cubans themselves. Friendly and happy despite being poor by world standards, and welcoming towards Americans. They look forward to getting to know us better.

As one Cuban told me, "we like America, it's our government that doesn't so we hope you come and enjoy our warmth".

For more information about Kirk's next trip to Cuba in March this year, email him at [email protected].

Visiting soon? Check out more Cuba travel articles from the Reader.

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