Cuba – Old Havana (Yes, we did go there legally)

Havana, Cuba

Havana, Cuba

Since it will still be about three months before we do any international traveling, I thought it would be fun to share a few of our more recent trips to give you an idea of what travel looks like through the eye of my camera.

Last year just before my mom came to live with us, we joined a small group tour organized by James Lewis (jameslewisrn.com) to Cuba.  It was a legal and licensed people-to-people trip structured for those in the medical profession to get continuing education credits, interact with others in the medical field in Cuba, and donate some medical supplies.  We each took with us a small amount of supplies chosen from a list we were provided prior to leaving.

Most travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba is outlawed, but tens of thousands of Americans now visit the island legally each year on people-to-people tours, which are licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department. People-to-people trips must have educational and cultural exchange itineraries in order to be approved by the U.S. government.

There are now direct flights from Miami to Havana, but in early 2012 we had to fly from Mexico.  We flew from Los Angeles to Cancun and met up with our group there.  After a short overnight, we flew the next day non-stop to Havana and were transferred to our hotel.  Our first five nights were at the Hotel Parque Central, located right on the edge of Old Havana.

Hotel Parque Central

Hotel Parque Central

The room was a little dated but clean and the location was ideal.  The rooftop pool area was inviting and a wonderful place to relax over a cocktail or coffee.  The view included Cuba’s Capitol building which was inspired by the US Capitol building in Washington DC.

We felt very safe in Cuba and were free to walk about and explore anywhere we wished during our free time.  Being right on the edge of Old Havana, we looked forward to walking the area, seeing the architecture, meeting people, taking pictures, and simply experiencing the city.

How would I describe Old Havana?  Beautiful, vibrant, colorful, a combination of decaying infrastructure and restoration, music floating out from every doorway, alive.  I was instantly enchanted by the sights, overwhelmed by the sounds, and could hardly take pictures fast enough.

Typical street Old Havana

Typical street Old Havana

Clothes hung from balconies drying in the afternoon sun, vendors displayed a variety of fresh fruit, flowers or items for a quick meal.  It was easy to move along slowly with the crowd, or stand for a while and simply watch passersby.

The local people seemed laid back, friendly and welcoming. We felt no animosity toward us as Americans, however there were hints of not being in agreement with our government policies and embargo when asked directly. For the most part they are a poor people, making well below our minimum wages.

The average monthly salary in Cuba rose 17 per cent between 2006-2011 to the equivalent of $19, the state statistics office said.

Yes, you read that correctly – the average MONTHLY salary.  According to this same article, “There is a very small salary range from unskilled to highly skilled labor; so a street sweeper might make $17 and a brain surgeon $22 a month.”

Being in Cuba on a medical people-to-people program, we heard about doctors leaving medicine to drive a taxi because they made more through tips than they did using their skills.

I’ll post more about our tour of a medical facility in a later post for anyone interested in seeing what an emergency clinic looks like there.  But for now, back to the sights of Old Havana.

Want to stop in at one of Ernest Hemingway’s old hangouts?  Check out La Bodeguita Del Medio.  Being on the tourist route, it was busy, and over priced, but the food was good enough to bring us back a second night.  They are one of several places that claim to have originated the mojito.  The walls are covered with signatures of visitors from all over the world.

Signature walls

Signature walls

Did I fall in love with Old Havana?  In a nutshell – yes. 

I would encourage anyone that loves photography, has a sense of adventure, is patient and can adapt to a slower way of life, is open-minded, is interested in learning about a different way of life, likes mojitos, and can roll with new experiences with a warm smile and an open heart to go.

There are several tour companies currently offering legal trips for US citizens.  Here are a few:

http://www.discovery-tours.com/small-groups-cuba-9dcuff13.aspx

http://www.jameslewisrn.com/

http://insightcuba.com/cuba-tours

And here is a great site for information specifically for Americans traveling to Cuba:

http://cubatravelforamericans.com/

So, what do you think?  Have you been to Cuba?  Have any desire to go?  If not, what is your hesitation?

About Tim and Joanne Joseph

Hi and welcome! We are Tim and Joanne Joseph and we have just embarked on our "next chapter". At a stage in life where traveling the world, taking pictures, and sharing our adventures with friends and family will be our dream come true.
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15 Responses to Cuba – Old Havana (Yes, we did go there legally)

  1. Pingback: Cuba – Old Havana (Yes, we did go there legally) | Photo Walkabouts

  2. Reblogged this on A Note From Abroad and commented:

    Now that Cuba is in the limelight once again, I decided to repost three of my blog posts that talk about the trip we took a couple of years ago.

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  3. Cuba has always been on my ‘must visit’ list but now I need to go there quickly before things rapidly change!

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  4. Debra Kolkka says:

    I didn’t like Havana. I can appreciate that it must have been wonderful once. We travelled with a Cuban couple and they told us of their lives there. He was a doctor and she a teacher. Unfortunately their descriptions of the way they live coloured my impressions. It may seem exotic if you don’t have to live in a crumbling house and eat substandard food, but for the locals it is a pretty grim existence. I hope good change will come for them.

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  5. Debra Kolkka says:

    I hope their lives improve too. It would be great to see some of the magnificent old homes saved before they disintegrate completely.

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  6. patriciabzvz says:

    Hi to both of you! 🙂 Nice to meet you. I live in Cuba since I was born. In Havana too. It´s wonderful how great opinion do you have about my natal city, and how do you describe it. It´s wonderful to see people from abroad who love my country. My uncle is a Tour Guide here in Cuba and I have met lots of people who come from abroad thinking the same. It´s amazing how people react about Cuba. Thanks for the story. I loved it. And the pictures are amazing. Cuba is a great country for photographs. Hope you can come again 🙂

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  7. Thank you for your recommendations.

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  8. vivachange77 says:

    I loved Cuba. My husband and I went there in April, 2012 on a Road Scholar People to People tour. I wrote about the experience on my blog in a series of posts called Cuba 2012 – Love Songs Written on My Heart.

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    • We too loved Cuba. It surprised me, delighted me, and captured our hearts. I hope that more Americans get to see the real Cuba before it changes too much. Although positive growth and a thriving economy I’m sure will be welcomed.

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  9. We hope to take a family trip to Cuba. My husband is from the Havana area and has not been back in 50 years since his family left. You gave me an idea because our daughter is a dentist and may be able to arrange a trip through the medical people to people that you mentioned. Thank you. I am enjoying your travel blogs.

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