I’m not one to seek out tour packages, but in 2004 I decided it was time to bite the bullet and see Cuba. I found an 8 day trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Center in suburban Chicago for $3000, not including airfare to Miami. I was the youngest in my group of 18 by a good 20 years, which was great fun. We visited the Jewish community in Havana, and brought them prescription drugs and other hard-to-come-by items like car batteries and shock absorbers. We toured the sites in Havana (cigar factories, Hotel Nacional, Old Havana, art museums, concerts, etc.) and spent an evening at an all-exclusive in Varadero.
At night back in Havana we were on our own. I hired a car and driver to take me to La Floridita to drink daiquiris one night and to Chinatown another. One evening when my group was together we met Ricardo Alarcon at a restaurant. He stopped by our table and joked with us about sneaking into Cuba. He didn’t know we were there legally, but also didn’t seem to care. He was a great guy. At that time, Americans could spend US dollars in Cuba, and buy 2 boxes of cigars and 2 bottles of rum. Upon entry, the customs officers wouldn’t stamp our passports unless we asked them to. They didn’t want to get us in trouble. I was on a legal trip, but even if I hadn’t been, I wanted that damn stamp. I had one for Vietnam ‘91 when the US didn’t have relations with that country. It was more difficult to clear customs back in Miami after we left Havana. The guards tried to make us feel like criminals for bringing back cigars and rum, even though it was legal. I’ve since recommended that trip to many. My parents went later that year, but by then the US dollar was banned.
-Susan Blumberg-Kason, traveled in 2004.