May Day, May Day

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“The Cuban People Will Win”. Sign at the May Day march.

It was April 30th and I was just arriving in Havana from San Jose, Costa Rica. After dealing with the hassle of getting my hands on some Cuban Pesos at the airport’s seemingly only exchange counter, I was finally on my way with an acquaintance I met on the tarmac bus. We and a couple of nice, older gentlemen from Turkey went on our way to the taxi staging area to share a ride to the city center. Itching to start seeing those classic 1950’s, that itch was scratched the moment we got outside and hopped into a bright blue 1950-some Chevrolet with classic white leather seats. Though this car was rigged with a digital odometer and under the dash were A/C vents that appeared to be taken off of a cheap Asian car, it still retained much of its charm and certainly its rumble of a vintage American engine.

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Didn’t take long to see the fabled cars! Our taxi at the airport after landing in Havana.

The spring Havana heat coupled with eagerness of seeing Cuba with my own eyes, I delicately rolled down the window as I crossed my fingers the seeming ancient mechanisms of the window crank didn’t break on my watch. While I continue to gaze upon the world largely withheld from American eyes, we approach a stoplight adjacent to La Plaza de la Revolución. It was a nice open area with the José Martí Memorial, circled by government buildings displaying larger-than-life outlines of the revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. It’s at this point that our cabbie informs us that there will be a massive parade with thousands in attendance, included their very own dictator, Raúl Castro. Naturally, I had to be there.

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Che Guevara at La Plaza de La Revolucion

That evening upon socializing with fellow foreign travelers at the hostel, I found out I wasn’t the only one intrigued by the hoopla and commotion of the parade. In fact, everyone wanted in. The thing was, we all wanted to enjoy the evening, but wanted to make the 7am parade start. Our solution: let’s stay up all night. At this point, I knew it was going to be a night to remember.

The Struggle

Here we are, a bunch of 20-somethings from different parts of the world who all decided to converge in Cuba, ready to take on the night. The nightlife was naturally were we belonged, and we set out to find it. We would go to the doorstep of one establishment, then another, leading us to quickly realize that most Cubans shut everything down the eve of May 1st, presumably in respect for the holiday ahead and to get a good night’s rest before the holiday’s bright and early start.

 

Disappointed, but still energetic and not about to give up, we found a convenience window, stocked up on a couple of bottles of Havana Club and made our way down to the Malecón (sea wall and adjacent boulevard) with our group and some new faces we met on the way in tow. It was our time at the Malecón that was one of the most memorable and it was coincidentally one of the simpler. There we were, sitting along the wall as we face Havana and its 1950’s cars joyriding and taxiing up and down the boulevard, with our backs to the United States somewhere out in the abyss amongst the sound of Caribbean’s waves crashing on the rocks below. Couples embracing and kissing, groups of friends hanging out and passersby all congregated to the wall that night, like many nights before. We talked, laughed, and shared insights and stories from our homes abroad.

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El Malecon near sunset, April 30th.

The Cuban Immersion

A part of the Malecón session that doesn’t happen as much as it should on trips sometimes was the interaction with the locals. The couple of Cuban guys we picked up along the way couldn’t have been older than 19 years old and by talking with them, gave us a glimpse into the life of the youth in Cuba. It was so interesting that they marveled at my iPhone 6 saying that they never could obtain one in their lifetimes. Having been hanging out with them all night, I felt comfortable enough with to let them handle my phone. They got such satisfaction by simply moving the background screens back and forth as if they liked the way the touch sensory responded to their fingertips. They had phones of their own, and not too out of date but were less popular, cheaper brands. Granted, Apple products are expensive by most American’s standards (and certainly my own) but their response to something that is a very common part of our lives for us -tourists was eye-opening in a way. I read about how wages are very low and imports are limited and restricted but I had just witnessed this authentically first hand. All these sights, sounds, and interactions were all great, but the rum was running out and we were now in the wee hours of the morning- it was time to roam across the streets of Havana to La Plaza.

As we left the Malecón and made out way inland as a pack of mostly foreigners down the darkened streets, relying on the few city lights for guidance, we quickly started joining the masses of Cubans, street by street, joining more and more people before dawn in a communistic pilgrimage of sorts.

In the Thick of It

A food break here, a restroom break there, and before we know it, we made it! “May Day” has arrived. In the thick of it, we weave our way through the families, social groups, and loners, towards the center and around the parade staging area lining up the middle of the street. Finally, we find a spot we were all content with right next to a pack of Cuban soldiers preparing to walking in synchrony with their nation’s flag held by each of them in the middle.

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Cuban soldiers carrying the nation’s flag at the May Day event.

It was surreal at this point. Here we are, our group, having walked miles in the dark, starting just as the fewer than 10 of us to now being in a pre-dawn congregation of over possibly a million people, most of whom living in the strict, communist rule of the Castro regime for all or most of their lives. The parade groups wait with anticipation to start their march towards the ominous, towering José Martí Memorial as the sun starts to illuminate the early morning sky.

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Service men and women wait for the May Day march to commence at La Plaza de la Revolucion.

The time has arrived. The beats and rhythm escalate, everyone now is attentive and upright, and the parade caravan begins to slither forward. Our endurance has paid off, witnessing this sight that few Americans have seen. I felt truly fortunate enough to seize the opportunity to travel to Cuba with the loosed travel restrictions and happened to arrive perfectly in time for one of the nation’s most important holidays. We stayed for a half hour as we were only humans on 24 hours of no sleep, therefore desperately needing to get back the hostel for a well-deserved mid-day sleep… and a propaganda break.

Getting from Costa Rica (and the US) to Cuba

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Cuba Ready! My Passport, Boarding Pass, and Cuba Visa.

First a Bit on Travelling from the United States to Cuba

Getting into Cuba isn’t the most straight forward, especially for Americans. Under Barack Obama during his time in office as US President, travel to Cuba got much easier, although still technically not allowed. Prior to the loosening of restrictions, to get a visa you had to apply to qualify under one of 12 categories for permitted travel to Cuba, examples being Humanitarian, Educational, Support for the Cuban people, Journalism, etc. Nowadays you still have to claim you’re going for one of these categories once you’re at your departing airport in the USA, but it’s no longer enforced and no application process takes place ahead of time- more or less a nod from the US government to “go for it”.

The Department of State website it the best place to go for the lasted information. The website currently makes it sound harder to go than it really is. I personally went from Costa Rica but from my discussions from fellow Americans in Cuba who flew from the United States, I found they had no issues whatsoever. Those I befriended I know made it back safely to the USA as well. By far, “Support for the Cuban People” seems to be the most vague and ambiguous of all the categories and thus the most difficult for immigration authorities to argue against  (which they wouldn’t under normal situations). This category was the choice of all Americans I met and I would encourage using this one. Although not always checked, you are supposed of having non-US health insurance during your time in Cuba as well.

I myself flew from Havana, Cuba to Tampa, Florida on Southwest Airlines to exit the country. Upon entry into the US and going through immigration, none of the officials thought twice about this planeful of cigar and rum loaded Americans coming back from Cuba and most, if not all of these passengers were obviously there for more tourist reasons than anything else. I didn’t even have questions asked. That little of a deal. Hope that puts you at ease.

*Under the new president, Donald Trump, things may change as he plans to take a different stance on Cuban-American relations. Any changes made may greatly affect travel from the USA to Cuba in the future. Again, see the Dept. of State site for more information.

Now from Costa Rica

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The Plane I Flew On from San José to Havana.

Booking

Flying from other countries, such as Costa Rica, Canada, and Mexico has long been the “loophole” to get to Cuba for Americans. I just so happened to be in Costa Rica with friends before I would set out to Cuba on my own there-on. So regardless of most nationalities, Costa Rica can be a great jumping point from one beautiful place to the next.

There’s a limited few airlines that service this route. Copa, Interjet, Cubana, Avianca, Aeromexico, United, and American some of these. Cubana and Aeromexico must be searched on their sites as they aren’t included on those travel search engine sites. I personally found Cubana to be the best deal for a mere $137 one-way, but they have few flights- one a day if not at all on a particular day.

It’s Not a Trip Without Something Getting Changed Around On You

The flight from San José, Costa Rica to Havana, Cuba on Cubana Airlines (in Spanish: Cubana de Aviación) wasn’t the smoothest experience right off the bat. I got an email in Spanish about 36 hours before the flight that my 3:30pm flight was rescheduled to the morning and I must report to the desk by 7:30am. I had no idea when my actual flight was rescheduled to! I was lucky because not only did I have internet access, the email didn’t end up in my spam folder, and I was able to get there early. I was fortunately only in Tamarindo, a several hours shuttle ride to San José that was booked to arrive the night before anyways. So I was fine, but I couldn’t say the same to much of the other passengers since the plane turned out to be mostly vacant, presumably from this schedule bump.

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Above the Caribbean Sea.

Exit Tax

To leave the country, an exit tax must be paid. Many airlines will include this in the cost of your ticket, so no need to worry about it if that’s the case. However, if you fly Cubana like myself, it is not included. If you are unsure if it is included, the exit tax desk has a list of the airlines. The tax is US$29 payable in US dollars, which is widely accepted in Costa Rica to begin with. If you don’t have enough cash, there is an ATM back out the nearest terminal doors and to the left at the departures passengers drop off area. You can practically see it out of the windows behind the exit tax desk.

Visa

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My Cuba Passport Stamps. Oh, and My Old India One.

After you have your exit tax ticket, you may proceed to the ticket counter. Here an employee asked if I had the exit tax paid. After my confirmation that I had, he asked, “Do you have your visa?” I wish he had followed that question with the word yet, as I got instantly nervous that I was supposed to already possess one. Like I mentioned, travel to the country is technically still not allowed for Americans, so I’ve been crossing my fingers during this entire transition from Costa Rica to Cuba.

Note that there are only tourist visas issued here, regardless of if you are American or otherwise. The whole category visa system doesn’t apply for travel initiating from Costa Rica.

Fortunately, I didn’t have any reason to be nervous as we then went to the counter where he pulled out a box full of empty visas. I paid the US$30 for the Tourist Visa (more cash you’ll need!) and he handed me one to fill out. From there, I got my boarding pass and I was off through the gates! Of which there was no line through security which was a welcomed surprise. By the way, don’t forget a Red Bull in your bag as you pass through the x-rays as they WILL find it and you’ll feel like an idiot.

From there on out it was normal boarding procedure and was soon enough off to Cuba!

 

 

Cuba- A Place Unlike All Others

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An Elusive Island

Cuba is undoubtedly a place that most of Americans, let alone most of the world, has never been. Europeans, Canadians, and Latin Americans, among others, have been fortunate enough to visit this elusive land for all these years, while Americans, though only a mere 90 miles away, haven’t had a straight forward opportunity to go in many decades.

Fortunately for travelers looking to go there from the United States, former President Obama loosened travel restrictions to the island nation. So what did that mean to mean to me? Well, I said to myself, “I gotta get to Cuba!”

Getting from Costa Rica (and the US) to Cuba

Throughout my travels thus far, I’ve experienced over a couple dozen countries spread over nearly all of the continents. Many of those places share similarities and differences with other countries far and wide. However, Cuba had erred on the side of differences much more. It was a country truly unlike any other I have personally explored. The main reason? It is truly stuck in time!

Life in the 1950’s

It’s stuck in time: You may have heard that phrase used to describe Cuba before. Well, whoever you heard this from is spot on. Granted few of us ever experienced actual 1950’s Cuban life, but it’s close to what I would picture it as. Imagine a place where most of the cars rolling by down the streets are 50’s American classics, your old Plymouth’s, Ford’s, Chevy’s, Oldsmobile’s- cars that would be a collector’s dream, but are instead used for everyday commuting and as taxis. Some of these cars are in such great condition, you’d swear they just came off the assembly line last year and boast shiny, colorful paint jobs with glistening chrome bumper, rims, and trim. Some, on the other hand, show their age but have character from having spent over half a century on the road.

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The cars are just a piece of the puzzle. Just look around. They’re constantly driving through the streets of Havana, which are lined with Spanish colonial era architecture buildings. Though the poverty has taken a toll on these buildings through the lack of upkeep, these as well add to the charm and character of the island, and when you find the more meticulously maintained structures, you appreciate their beauty all the more.

In our day of age, consumer electronics are all the rage and can be found nearly everywhere but that’s not the case in Cuba. Through with the passing of Fidel Castro, some electronics have recently hit the island under his brother Raul’s rule but they are far from common. Even internet is hard to find! Someone having internet in their home? No way. When you go to Cuba get ready to put away all your electronics except your camera. I found it to be surprisingly liberating anyways! People around the world weren’t on their phones or playing video games all of the time decades ago and that case stands true today there.

Beautiful Landscapes

The beaches, the beaches, the beaches. Pale white sand, aquamarine water, and a beaming sun radiating, the beaches are tough to get outside the Caribbean. Varadero is a great spot to be if you’re looking for this kind of beach alongside tourist-oriented amenities such as bars, clubs, shopping, and dining. Especially after a few days walking up and down the streets of Old Havana, this is a great place to unwind.

Unbeknownst to many, Cuba actually has mountains and caves. These provide fantastic views, particularly in the Pinar del Rio area surrounding the many plantations. Of course, the plantations that visitors are most interested in are tobacco, heart of the cigar industry.

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Rum and Cigars

As I’m sure you know, Cuban cigars are renowned as the best in the world and I have to say, I believe they are. The micro climates of the Pinar del Rio region and other parts of the country are prime for tobacco production. Go ahead, smoke one or two or 10 fresh Cubans. Even go to a plantation and smoke them at the source! Oh and don’t forget to bring enough cash to bring some home as you family, friends, and your future self will thank you. Who doesn’t like the best in the world, especially if it’s so hard to come by?

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The rum, my goodness, the rum. Caribbean rum is a favorite amongst businessmen and pirates alike. Cuba’s famous Havana Club rum is top-notch and usually in the vicinity of US$6 for a 750 mL bottle… you can’t go wrong! You just might have to find room in your baggage to bring some home as well (you know I did).

In Conclusion

Being that Cuba is full of culture, architecture, natural beauty, and timelessness I highly recommend it to an experienced traveler. Resulting from the lack of technology and capitalism, the country is challenging to navigate and get accustomed to. However, if you’re willing to take on the inconveniences, the rewards will be spectacular. You’ll fly back home with memories of a life time. Take plenty of pictures and indulge on the nation’s specialties. Leave behind your daily routines and come with an open mind, and if you do so, you’ll enjoy Cuba to the fullest.