Why Should You Visit Cuba?

title: why visit cuba

What makes Cuba so special?

It’s been a couple of weeks now since my last trip to Cuba, and I’m sure I could make another 20 visits and I still won’t really understand the place. I know I’m not the first person to say that.

So why go? What makes it so different from another Caribbean island? Here’s where I’m at:

The History.

You don’t need to be a gearhead old-time car fanatic to take pause over the rainbow of “almendrones” in Havana. In the same way you don’t need to be a historian or architect to appreciate what’s all around you.

Parque Central
Parque Central, Havana

Havana is a big city, and it’s history is equally big. The 3 C’s are all on display:

In times of Colonialism, it was a thriving port and full of Spanish gold and pirates. The forts and cannons are everywhere to prove it.

When Capitalism took hold, Cuba was superlative – the mobsters brought their excesses in night clubs and hotels, and American money built great homes and estates. That’s all still there showing witness, crumbly as it is.

Grand Theatre of Havana
Outside the Grand Theatre of Havana

And, of course, Communism is the Cuba we all think of – and this is the one that I found so interesting – not just in revolutionary relics and soviet-style buildings, but in conversations with Cubans. They are just as eager to learn about life in the States as they are to tell you about theirs.

Playing baseball with local kids at Finca Vigía
Playing baseball with local kids at Finca Vigía

The People.

Yes, lovely people can be found everywhere. But it just felt like a good conversation, even briefly on the street, was enough on its own, and not just a pretext for some other less virtuous motive. Maybe it’s because Cubans are supposed to be miserable, repressed and held back, that they seem to us so friendly and engaged. Maybe it’s just the island life and the rum.

beaches and mojitos

Yes, they would like– and should have– Freedom. But it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate their strong education or healthcare. It’s so complex. Maybe Starbucks doesn’t equal happiness.

The Music.

Ours was a music tour – a children’s choir from California. But even without that special focus, it still would have been a music tour. There is good, no, great music everywhere on that island. From the professional entertainers in restaurants to the street musicians in the plazas, the sounds of Cuba are what sticks with you longest, I think.

Cuban musicians outside a restaurant

Getting to know our Cuban hosts after concert with the Cuban National Children’s Choir
Getting to know our Cuban hosts after concert with the Cuban National Children’s Choir

You should check it out.


Ready to see Cuba for yourself? There are still a few spots left on our “Many Faces of Cuba” tour, with two departures to choose from: 

The Many Faces of Cuba — November 1-9, 2016

The Many Faces of Cuba — November 8-16, 2016

Over the Rainbow: To Cuba with the Michigan Community Touring Choir

CubaEarlier this month, the Michigan Community Touring Choir made “Witte history” as the first of our groups to travel to Cuba!

From April 1 – 8, 2016, I was fortunate to be the Witte representative accompanying the Michigan Community Touring Choir for Witte’s first tour to Cuba! This group was directed by Dr. Meredith Bowen and included singers from the Holland Chorale, Sistrum, and the Lansing Women’s Chorus, as well as a number of other singers from throughout Michigan.

dupont mansion, varadero, cuba
The choir posing in front of Dupont Mansion in Varadero

Their repertoire included the song, Over the Rainbow (arr. Russ Robertson). This song quickly became the theme song of our travels to Cuba—

Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

Many of us in the group (myself included) were only in elementary school when Fidel Castro came to power in January, 1959. Until very recently, Cuba may as well have been “over the rainbow” as far as most Americans were concerned.

car in trinidad
Trinidad

Part of the appeal of travel to Cuba is because it has been “closed” to most Americans for more than 50 years—but there are many, many reasons why Cuba is a very interesting destination. First of all, it is a beautiful Caribbean Island very close to the United States. Our flight from Toronto to Havana was only 3 ½ hours and in the same time zone, but when we landed, we didn’t have to say, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas.” From the moment we entered the chaotic Havana Terminal, it was very clear that we were indeed “over the rainbow”—and in another world.

Besides the beautiful weather, one of the other main attractions of Cuba is their rich culture the “people to people experiences”. For a music group like the Michigan Community Touring Choir, the opportunity to have workshops with Cuban choral directors and joint concerts with Cuban choirs was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

cuban audience in havana
Cuban audience at a performance in Havana

Our group had three choral workshops/exchanges/joint concerts—in Cienfuegos, Matanzas and Havana. The quality of the Cuban choirs was outstanding and the Cuban choirs were equally impressed by the Michigan Choir. In two of the three exchanges, the Cuban directors and choirs taught our group new songs that they performed together at the end of the concerts. Wow– what a special experience for the American and Cuban performers and audience!

Choral workshop in Matanzas
Choral workshop in Matanzas

Whether your future travel plans to Cuba are as part of a performing group or for another of the 12 approved reasons, here are a few highlights plus a few words of advice—

We stayed in Havana the first night and then went to Cienfuegos for two nights before returning to Havana. Day excursions also included Trinidad (near Cienfuegos), Varadero, Matanzas, San Francisco de Paula (Hemingway’s former home) and Cojimar (setting for Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea). The combination of being on the north and south side of the island and in cities, smaller towns and country roads gave us wider view of Cuba. Definitely visit more than just Havana when you go to Cuba.

cienfuegos
Cienfuegos

I had expected run-down buildings badly in need of repair but I wasn’t prepared for some truly magnificent architecture including the Spanish Colonial buildings in Trinidad and homes reminiscent of the French Riviera in Cienfuegos. Havana itself reminded me of a less glamourous version of Nice, France. I was also prepared for and looking forward to seeing all the classic 1950’s American cars—and they were everywhere. What surprised me was that there are lots of newer cars too—and also horse drawn carts.

havana
Horse-drawn cart in Havana

Other surprises—

Hotels: These were a pleasant surprise. We stayed at the Hotel Capri in Havana and the Hotel Jagua. Both are 1950’s vintage, but nicer than expected. The lobbies and public areas were lovely, hotel staff pleasant and efficient, elevators, plumbing and air conditioning worked fine and the breakfast buffets were almost embarrassingly bountiful.

trinidad

Restaurants and Food: Especially as a vegetarian, I was not sure what to expect from the food. In addition to our huge breakfast buffets, most meals were in the private restaurants known as paladares. Many of these are in private homes, so each one is unique. Yes, there were lots of black beans and rice, but the meals were varied and usually included beautiful fresh salads and scrumptious desserts. Non-vegetarians can expect to eat lots of pork and seafood. Besides mojitos, other beverages were always available. Water is always served in bottles.

street dog in Cuba
Street dogs are a common sight in Cuba.

Bathrooms: The amenities for tourists are, of course, worlds away from what the average Cuban experiences. It’s difficult for the Cuban people to purchase even basic items like soap and toothbrushes—so be sure to bring some to give as gifts. Also, many buildings do look like they are about to fall apart and, except for the hotels and nicer restaurants, the plumbing (especially the bathrooms) is inadequate, not very clean, and frequently out of order. As noted in our Travel Tips, make sure to always have toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bottled water.

In spite of these inconveniences, I encourage anyone who has the opportunity go “somewhere over the rainbow” to Cuba. After all, there is no longer any reason to say, “Oh why, oh why can’t I.”

choral performance in Matanzas
The choir performing in Matanzas

Interested in traveling to Cuba? Check out our earlier blog post Travel to Cuba: Who? Why? How? for answers to some FAQ’s.

Guest Post: Upcoming Tours with John and Lynda Witte

John & Lynda Witte
This post was originally written by John Witte on March 23, 2016


Hello All,

Lynda and I want to update you on the tours on which we still have space for 2016, and give you some preliminary information on our 2017 plans.

On April 7, we are leaving with a group of fellow travelers to explore the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. After a summer break we will be on tour in Spain and Portugal, September 15 – 29. That tour is full but we are accepting people on the waitlist.

During October 17 – 22, we will be in New York City. I lived on Long Island for four years and traveled to the City regularly to see plays, visit museums, and just wander. Since moving away from Long Island, there have been almost yearly trips to the City and sometimes more. Lynda and I love NYC, and we put together a tour showing you some of the main sites– but also some places not generally included in other tours.

We will start the tour by crossing the George Washington Bridge and taking you into Washington Heights to visit Fort Tyrone Park for a great view of the New Jersey Palisades and the GW Bridge. You will also see the point where the Hudson River splits, creating the East River. Afterwards we will see some highlights in Harlem, stroll through Central Park, visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and eat dinner at Sylvia’s– one of Harlem’s most famous soul food restaurants. The following day will include a walk through High Line Park, once an elevated train route along the west side of Manhattan. That same day we will spend time in Chelsea, SoHo, and Chinatown, and we’ll enjoy dinner in Little Italy.

new york city tour
Another day will be spent in mid-town Manhattan where you will see St Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Plaza, Fifth Avenue, Grand Central Station, NYC Library and Bryant Park. We will take a break in the afternoon to take in a Broadway show and end our evening with dinner at the Carnegie Deli, across from Carnegie Hall. We will also spend a day in lower Manhattan to walk part of the Brooklyn Bridge, visit the St. Paul’s Chapel, the 9/11 Memorial site; Trinity Church, Federal Hall where George Washington was sworn in as our first President, Wall Street, and Battery Park for a great view of the Statue of Liberty.

After dinner on your own we will attend another Broadway show.  Our last full day in the City will be a special treat.  My friend, Daniel Meeter, pastor of Old First Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn, will join us for a tour of some Brooklyn neighborhoods.  Our evening will end with a dinner cruise on the Hudson and East Rivers; the ship will also pass closely by the Statue of Liberty.  You will have a free morning on the day we are scheduled to fly home.

new york city tour
There has been a lot of attention in the news about Cuba. I am hosting a Cuba tour November 1 – 9 which still has space for ten persons. Besides spending time in Havana, we will explore the lush botanical province of Pinar del Rio, the World Heritage city of Trinidad, and the colonial city of Cienfuegos. This tour will be repeated November 8 – 16, which both Lynda and I will host. That tour is almost sold out, but we are accepting waitlist applications.

Cuba tour destinations

Our tentative plans for 2017 include a tour of Costa Rica during late January into early February, which we will both host. This will be my sixth tour of Costa Rica; it is one of the most beautiful places in the world! We are also finalizing the details for a cruise (February 25 – March 8) which will begin and end in Fort Lauderdale, and will include stops in Aruba, Grand Cayman, beautiful Cartagena in Columbia, and Costa Rica. We will even travel through part of the Panama Canal to Colon, Panama, and will come through the same section of the canal on our return.

Costa Rica cruise tour

During September, we will be doing a Southern Italy tour focusing on Sicily, the Amalfi Coast, Naples, Pompeii, and possibly Rome. Our final adventure will be to Australia during the first half of November.

Let me know if any of these trips interest you, and I will send you more detailed information as it becomes available. And we always appreciate it if you share this information with others!

Sincerely,

Johannes and Lynda Witte

(616) 304-0504


Passionate about expanding their own horizons and those of others, Johannes (John) and Lynda Witte have been leading tour groups to destinations in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia since 1985. John and Lynda’s knowledge and experience have earned them a reputation as top-notch tour leaders, and group members appreciate the way they cater to each individual’s needs and interests. They especially enjoy leading small groups.

Travel to Cuba: Who? Why? How?

Cuba blog postEverything you need to know about Americans’ new opportunities to travel to Cuba.  And if you don’t see it here – please ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond. As the United States reopens its embassy in Havana, here’s what you need to know about traveling to Cuba. Much has changed already since the publication of new regulations for travel to Cuba on Jan. 16, which loosened some restrictions on travel for Americans, though travelers still cannot just hop on a plane and go.

1. So we can go to Cuba now?

Yes. But that’s not what’s new.  Americans have always been legally allowed to travel to Cuba as long as that travel was done for a number of allowable reasons, like humanitarian aid, research or visiting family. What’s new in 2015 is that you no longer have to jump through endless hoops to try to secure the “specific license” in order to obtain permission to travel.  The new “loosened restrictions” means that you still have the same laws to follow, but as long as you know that your travel qualifies, then you just go ahead and travel.  That’s what’s known as a “general license”.  You are required to keep records of your travel transactions for five years.

2. So I can pack my speedo and go on vacation?

No. There are 12 categories of allowable travel, and tourism is not one of them.  Beach vacations are not allowed.  The most common category being promoted is educational activities known as “people-to-people”, which consist of a full-time program of scheduled tours and activities designed to provide participants an opportunity to interact and engage with the people of Cuba.  You’ll stay with a group the entire time – no optional activities. classic cars in cuba

3. How do I get there?

Flights to Cuba from the U.S. are run by charter operations that have been doing this for many years.  Most flights depart from Miami, but new options have already been started from cities like New York and Tampa.  Regular commercial flights already exist via other countries, like Canada and Mexico, so that may be an option for your tour.  It might even be cheaper and faster.

Major carriers like American, Delta and United all are giving indications that they will add more charter flight options and could be offering regular commercial flights soon (2016?).

4. What about cruise ships?

Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean and cruise itineraries are easier to adjust than airline routes, so yes, cruises are soon to be a big deal for Americans to Cuba.  Trips still need to qualify under one of the 12 licensed categories (think P2P), but the cruise lines are all over this new opportunity.  Carnival, Pearl Seas and other cruise lines will all be sailing in 2016.

There are also several ferry companies soon to offer service, and private yacht companies that have already started sailing.

5. I hear hotel space is an issue?

That’s true.  Not enough high-end hotels and the possibility of a LOT more visitors is going to be interesting to watch.  The first thing we do when starting to plan a tour to Cuba is secure the hotel space.  So plan early.

cuba street

For the right group, casas particulares make for an interesting option – staying in Cuban homes as a guest of the family.  This certainly nails the people-to-people component and gives you a much better chance at enjoying some awesome Cuban cuisine than you might get at a state-run restaurant!  Casas particulares can be found in any of the popular tourist towns and give the locals a chance to make a little extra income.

6. Can I use credit cards?

Yes, it’s now allowed.  No, it might be awhile before the banks get operational, plus most places where you might want to swipe will probably not have the equipment required, so plan on cash.  You’ll have to exchange to local currency when you get there.  The exchange rate is 1:1 with the US$, but it costs 13% in the transaction. It’s fixed, so exchange anywhere you come across – airport, exchange bureau, bank… just be sure to spend it all because there’s no changing it back.

7. What can I buy there and bring back?

Souvenirs.  Up to $400 worth of goods, including $100 worth of cigars.  Which is like 2 if you buy the good ones.

8. So where do I sign up?

Witte is going to offer several “open” tours in 2016 and beyond.  Stay tuned for that.  We are always able to put together a custom tour if you have a group of at least 10 people ready to go.  And one of our travel consultants would love to sit with you to discuss all the options there are to travel with operators such as Globus or Apple Vacations.

We’re having informational meetings here in Grand Rapids on September 23 and 24 – please plan to attend! Or call 1 800 GO WITTE to find out more.

What other questions do you have about travel to Cuba? Be sure to ask them in the comments, or let us know on Facebook!

vinales-valley