Cuba Calling

Our 10th wedding anniversary was in 2016 and we wanted to celebrate with a trip, but weren’t comfortable leaving Camp behind. We also wanted to take advantage of travel while he could still fly as a lap baby. Where could we go that was somewhat adventurous but still a good family destination? The trip got postponed a year as we worked to figure this out. We first looked at various European itineraries but then decided against subjecting Camp to such a long flight. While he’s been a great traveler, having joined us on many flights and long drives, we just decided it would be more fun for everyone if we kept it shorter.

Aminda was getting restless to use her passport and to see a new country, which really limited our options for shorter flights.  When direct flights to Cuba became available up, we were ready to be among the first U.S. citizens to take advantage of it.

The timing felt opportune. Restrictions on Cuban citizens have been easing over the past few years, resulting in better services for travelers but not so much as to result in a complete character shift. Neither Starbucks nor McDonalds can be found in the country (open to civilians at least; there are said to be several U.S. chains located within the Guantanamo naval base), but who can say how much longer that will be the case.

Cuba was Cameron’s first international trip – a place with inconsistent WiFi where hardly anyone speaks English. To keep it easy (this was our anniversary celebration after all), we spent most of our nights at an all-inclusive resort. We’re normally not the all-inclusive types but this worked perfectly. The resort we chose was older, laid-back and un-crowded. We only had a couple days which filled easily at the beach and pool.

Booking our Cuba travel was a much different experience than we’re accustomed to. To book our domestic airfare we reserved flights with a tour agency based in Madrid who then booked the flight for us with an operator in Havana. The price of the domestic flight included airport transfers both directions at both the arrival and departure site.

They charged our credit card and in return e-mailed us a “voucher” with instructions to hand it to the “rep who will meet you at the airport.” The body of the e-mail instructed us to call the operator the day before the flight to reconfirm our airport transfer time and flight time. It all felt a little sketchy.

We flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Havana and then from Havana to Cayo Coco that same day. We thought we’d be stretched to kill time in the airport during our four hour layover, but that time was easily filled. First, it took an hour and a half to get our luggage. Then we had to load up the bags for a $10 taxi ride from the international to the domestic airport terminal.

Once we arrived at departures, I nervously handed my “voucher” to the agent, half expecting her to shove it back at me tell me it was bogus or I had failed to complete a few booking steps. Instead, we were quickly checked in and presented with a hand written boarding pass. Our waiting time passed quickly as Cameron was very popular with a couple of Cuban moms at the airport. Thankfully, our flight was the only one of the four departures that afternoon that was on time.

Ten of us debarked at Cayo Coco with the rest continuing on. We were promptly greeted by a friendly guide and five minutes later our luggage was hand-delivered. We boarded a comfortable, air conditioned sprinter van for the ride to our resort, where they knew our name upon arrival. All of my nerves dissipated, freeing us up to relax and enjoy our resort living. Cayo Coco boasted beautiful white sand beaches and warm ocean swimming. A private snorkeling tour cost us only $40 and we all enjoyed the Hobie Cat sail boat cruise out to the reef.

The resort was refreshingly kid friendly. Our snorkeling guide had a two year old daughter of his own and when our boat returned to shore, he expertly scooped up a sleeping Cameron and gently carried him safely to the beach.

Too soon we were back at the airport, jockeying for position in the chaotic boarding area as three departing flights were announced out once. The gate signage was a mess, leaving hundreds of passengers crammed into the departures area with no idea where they were going.

Finally, we arrived in Havana. With only 24 hours, we had to start exploring. Not being city people, we found one night to be plenty of time. The combination of heat, humidity and diesel fuel was draining.

First up was a walking tour of old town, wandering through grassy promenades, music-filled plazas and narrow cobblestone streets mirroring those of other Spanish colonial cities. Cameron got a reprieve from the stroller at a local playground, running and climbing with local families.

Our Air B&B was located in the residential neighborhood of Vedado, a short 10 minute drive from Old Town. Sunday morning was Mother’s Day and by 8a.m. the neighborhood was bustling. The street adjacent to our apartment was lined with flower vendors at the entrance to a large cemetery. Hundreds of families had come by foot to bring flowers to the graves. Other families were using the morning to grocery shop, loading huge bags of rice onto scooters and sorting through through the produce stands.

Our taxi rides included a couple of vintage cars, like a 1978 vintage Russian Lada with broken handles. We admired the beautifully maintained classic American Chevys and Fords (available at an additional cost or as a rental). We were fortunate to hang out with a couple of English speaking locals who gave us some insight into the complicated nation (yes, embarrassingly our Spanish is pretty minimal). While restrictions have been easing, such as the ability to travel out of the country and more opportunities for private business, these endeavors are hindered by restraints, particularly with the internet. Currently, internet is only available in hotels and public parks, complicating any travel or business arrangements. Locals are able to purchase new vehicles but are shut down by inflated prices.

Cuba was both a relaxing vacation and an exciting cultural experience. While our trip was short, we were happy for the opportunity and also excited to be heading back to Florida to finish our vacation in the Keys.

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