In 2016, the Obama administration loosened former sanctions against Cuba, allowing American citizens to independently travel to Cuba.

Recently, Ellen Michaels took a very special trip with some friends to Cuba. They ventured off for seven days on a chartered ship. The ship’s main stops consisted of the capital city of Havana, the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos, and the central Cuban city of Trinidad.

Only a 45 minute flight from Miami, Havana, Cuba holds many undiscovered treasures for travelers looking to open their horizons and try something new. Here, Ellen shares her perspective on the newly opened country and what lay ahead for the Cuban people.




What does traveling to Cuba entail? How long is the process?

“As an American you can’t just ‘go’ to Cuba. You have to have a purpose for your trip, something deemed educational by the government, something like that. Everything we did, we met Cuban people. Our guide was Cuban. It’s a very, very interesting place.”

“So we went on a cruise and it was called People-to-People. The intent is to not just do tourist activities, but to meet Cuban people and to exchange, talk about life. They coordinate experiences for you to meet people, but afterwards they give you lots of free time.”

“The process does take a while. You have to get a Visa. Cuba is very different. It’s very protected so everywhere you go, you have to show your passport. You can’t use credit cards. All cash.”


What is the best reason to visit?

“I think first of all, people should go now because you’ll see it kind of the way it was. As it opens up more and more, you will not see what it used to be like.”


What is the Cuban culture like?

“They are beautiful people. They are really nice – happy to have you and show you things.”

“The place has a vibe, such a lively vibe. Everywhere you go there is music, kind of like New Orleans, but it’s a totally different kind of music. Castro did some amazing things in the country. He focused on the medical system, one of the best medical systems. He really focused on art, dance and music.”


What kind of experiences did you have exploring their art and music?

“They took us to a musical school which was incredible. The closest thing you could compare it to here is Julliard. They take the kids when they are really little, like three years old. I have to tell you, they put on a concert that you would not have believed. There were little girls who played the violin, but they were five years old! They could play really good violin. The age compared with the talent was phenomenal. We were blown away.”

“We walked into The Havana Club. They are famous for their rum. They had a band there that could have easily been put on the stage at Monterey Jazz Festival. The jazz was unbelievable, the music a combination of Cuban and African sound.”


Does travel in Cuba present any unique challenges? 

“It’s a really poor country. There is no toilet paper in the bathrooms, every time you go, you have to bring your own. You can get internet but it costs a fortune. It’s about three dollars a minute.”

“Usually you clear customs in a country once and you’re done. In Cuba, the officials come on the boat at every port to inspect everything. Then when you get off the boat you have to show your passport. They have a list of names and if your name isn’t on there, they won’t let you in. Leaving and coming back is all very tightly controlled, very bureaucratic. It’s just a lengthy process.”


Was there a favorite activity you participated in?

“The thing you have to remember about Cuba is, think 1950s. Outside of Havana there are more horses and buggies than cars, but in Havana they have these classic American cars that are just in pristine condition. So one of the fun things we did when we were on our own was my friend and I rented a ‘52 pink Chevy convertible. Those car guys take you around to a lot of different places that the tour guides wouldn’t take you to. You get to see a different side of Havana.”

“They took us to the Tropicana nightclub, which is like what you would have walked into in Las Vegas in the 1950s. Two hundred showgirls with feathers and singing and dancing. You know how they used to put bottles of liquor on the table? Part of your admission at the Tropicana is a bottle of rum.  It’s hilarious. It was so hokey, it was wonderful.”


Did you discover a favorite local dish?

“Yeah, mojitos! They’re delicious and they only cost a buck! Every meal had rice and black beans and some kind of meat.”


Is there anything you learned that surprised you?

“They love Americans. It shocked me. I think that’s because when the USSR collapsed, they stopped trading with them. They had to come up with another thing, so they came up with tourism. They see the Americans as a way to make money in tourism. They are really friendly, wonderful people.”

“There is no crime. You felt completely safe the entire time and that is highly unusual with the amount of poverty. The Cuban people are saying they are now modern socialists. They want more entrepreneurs. Our guide, he’s an entrepreneur. The gentlemen who ran the classic car business, he’s an entrepreneur. They want more of that. They want it to open up.”