The Last Time I Saw . . . Havana

Cuba is the hot new tourism destination. But better plan your visit soon before this picturesque throw-back to yesteryear becomes wallpapered with U.S. commercialism.

It’s been nearly 10 years since I toured Cuba. And when last I was there, I discovered two things: First, Cuba is a quaint little island caught in a time warp of the 1950s; a wonderful place to soak up the sun, some history and splendid architectural eye candy. Second, it was at that time, and perhaps still is, the most “unwired” Internet plot of earth in the entire world. More about that in a minute.

Getting to Cuba is Still a Hassle

In 2005, you had a choice of two ways to get to Cuba: legally and illegally. Contrary to popular belief, however, U.S. law does not prohibit US citizens fromCuban_flag visiting Cuba, but, the Feds go out of their way to make it difficult for you to fly there. And President Obama’s recent declaration about easing relations with Cuba does nothing to make it easier for the hoi poloi to make the trip. It’s still a hassle.

Why? Simple. The U.S. bans most U.S. carriers from flying into Cuba or using U.S. airspace to get there. Get this: you can fly from most any city in the U.S. to Miami, but making the short hop from Miami to Cuba will likely involve a long and treacherous swim.

Moreover, tourism is “sorta” banned by the “Trading With the Enemy Act,” which prohibits US citizens from spending money there. So, unless you intend to camp under a bridge and beg for food on the steps of the Capitolio, you’re going to have some explaining to do with Customs. And of course, U.S. dollars are useless on the island. The Cuban convertible peso is the going currency. Or the Euro which must be converted to pesos.

The Illegal Way to Visit Cuba

Of course, there are ways to get to Cuba and skirt U.S. laws. And if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably choose the illegal way because there’s a lot less bureaucratic nonsense to put up with and your flight accommodations will be a lot nicer.

The Cubans, after all,  have no restrictions on U.S. tourists. On the contrary; they welcome U.S. visitors and their dollars with open arms. And more than 100,000 U.S. citizens flock to Cuba every year; only about 20 percent do so legally, while the rest slipped in through third countries.

And that’s easy: simply board a U.S. air carrier and fly to Canada or Mexico or virtually anywhere else in the world. Then, book a flight from that country into Castro’s heartland. Or better yet, use one of the many travel agents like USA Cuba Travel to book a tour.

But here’s the kicker: When you enter Cuba “legally,”as I did as a journalist, you’ll likely wait in line at AerionetaMiami International at least FOUR HOURS while they process the locals returning to Cuba with cartfuls of goods not available in their homeland. Then you’ll board a twin-prop, puddle-jumper of an aircraft like the Aerioneta at right that I flew in, and deplane in a featureless, oversized hangar in Havana where you’ll do battle with completely unsympathetic customs agents. As your introduction to Cuba, the land of romance, it sucks.

And would you believe that it cost me more than TWICE as much to fly the 90 miles from Miami to Havana than it did to fly the 1800 miles from Minneapolis to Miami.

But no more. The next time I plan adventure travel to stock trade in Cuba, I’d  fly to the Bahamas from Minneapolis and then to Cuba. I’ll jet-set on a sleek, modern aircraft and deplane at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, where the glitterati land. Bon voyage!

The Great Internet Void

The biggest drawback of visiting Cuba, from the perspective of a gadabout like me who supports his travels by online stock trading, is the absurd lack of Internet service. Sure, hotels and many companies have Internet service used to run their business. But forget about dependable in-room wi-fi or dial-up. And if you’re looking for the Cuban variation of the Starbucks Internet café, you can forget that, too. For that matter, you might just as well leave your laptop at home, since you’ll find virtually no wi-fi, not even agonizingly slow dial-up service in most places. That’s a startling difference from the U.S. which is universally blanketed with high-speed access even down to the dowdiest Motel 6.

My trip to Cuba was, of course, largely before the advent of smartphones, but the rise of Apple and Samsung on the island has meant little to the common Cuban. There’s still no smartphone Internet access, and it’s even tough, I’m told, getting email service through the local telecom monopoly. I simply can’t imagine a life without smartphone email and Internet access—especially for trading stocks.

On my Cuban visit,  trading stocks online was a difficult, but not impossible, Capitoliochore. I stayed in Old Havana and Internet service was rarer than new-car showrooms. Yes, you’ll find the Internet on dial-ups in many hotel lobbies, and in a few government buildings like the train station or the Capitolio (at right), Cuban’s now defunct capitol building. That means I had to plan carefully.

Since you had to buy blocks of time, a half-hour, or an hour, in advance, I arranged it so that I would get on the Net a half-hour before the market opened and a half-hour into the trading day. I could scout out promising trades before the market open, and make my trades during the meatiest part of the trading day. If I could buy additional time, I would. If I couldn’t, I’d set sell stops and be on my way. If you’re a decent trader, you can get away with that, but of course, you’ll never earn top-dollar that way because you won’t be able to follow the rhythm of the day and cash in when it’s the best time to do so.

Varadero is typical of most “resort” cities I visited. There were few “Internet cafes” and access through the hotel is that same old, take-a-number routine that I grew to detest. I want you to picture a busload of kids from, say, Internet-savvy South Korea, piling into a hotel lobby or café with Internet service and every one of these kids wants to send an email to the folks back home. Better order lunch and dinner now because it’s going to be a long wait.

Moreover, you may be promised Internet service at your hotel, only to find the system down and collecting cobwebs. Most tourists get so fed up they check for messages by phone. I’m talking land line, here. It’s not only faster, but more reliable. And—it almost less expensive.

Cuba_AutosVintage cars are everywhere in Cuba, but most are what we would politely call “junkers.” And worse yet, I’m old enough to identify every one of the heaps in this picture since I was a teenager when they were new.

On my Cuban visit, I stayed in Havana a few days, and then took the Cuban version of “bullet train” to Santiago de Cuba, which is just a few miles as the crow flies from Guantanamo Bay. train

It was an arduous trip, since I use the term, “bullet train” entirely facetiously. I have traveled China’s bullet train from to Beijing to Shanghai and the Cuban version is far more primitive than even Amtrak’s Empire Builder, if you can imagine that. But I loved Santiago, and if you get the chance, be sure to include it in your visit. Except, fly there. Leave the train to the locals.

In Santiago, I stayed in a lovely hotel, the Casa Granda. It was awash with old-world charm:  wicker furniture, hotel rooms with transoms and fluted vents. You get the idea.

Up top, a  sunny roof-top garden offers beautiful vistas of the city. It’s a must-see for any Cuban tourista.  It’s situated overlooking the main square with a great view of the city, cathedral & surrounding museums and music schools. In an earlier era, I would have expected to see Ernest Hemingway over in the corner sipping Valpolicella and scribbling dialog for The Old Man and the Sea.

In Havana, I bunked at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.  Another terrific hotel that’s virtually dripping with history. I highly recommend it.

In the hotel’s heyday back in the 40s and 50s, you’d be rubbing shoulders with CubanModelilluminati like George Raft, Betty Grable, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Tyrone Power, Lucky Luciano, Rita Hayworth, Ali-Khan,  Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire. If you were a celebrity during the 1950s and visiting Cuba, the Nacional was the place to stay. Here’s a present-day shot of a lovely model I took while there.

Now a word of warning: If you’re going to visit Cuba, smart money suggests you do so before it becomes “Americanized.”

Frankly, I fear for the future of Cuba. I know that once American industry gets hold of this sweet, old-fashioned, eccentric island, they’ll ruin it. I can see it 219_1maleconnow:  A McDonald’s on every other corner, strip malls where the Malecon used to be—that broad esplanade (at right), which stretches for 5 miles along the coast in Havana. Plus an repetitive ocean of Starbucks, Target stores, Subways, and yes, even Taco Bells.

I know it’s coming. I rue the day it will happen. Just updating this post makes me anxious to return to the Island before Cuba turns into just another over-wrought, plastic tourist trap. Plan your trip now. Trust me. Sooner or later, they’re going to pave over paradise and put up a parking lot.

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