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Cuba: Part 3 – Through My Own Eyes
Posted By Jay On February 2, 2011 @ 9:40 am In International Travel Reviews | 4 Comments
This is the third and final part of my traveling to Cuba series. Part One of the series focused on the history of the embargo, how the embargo is portrayed in the US and my opinions on why every American should visit the island. Part Two detailed how a US citizen can qualify/travel to Cuba and a few tips on what to expect once they arrive. Part Three is about my personal experiences in Cuba’s capital city of Havana including the usual pictures and video.
Destination at a Glance
|Date of Trip||April 2010|
|Destination Good for||Culture, Learning|
|Best Time to Go||Always hot – though hurricane season is June-November|
|Currency/Conv. Rate||Cuban Convertible Currency / 1 CUC = 1.20 USD – Unfavorable|
|Good Way to Get Around||Rent Car: No||Public: No||Taxi: Yes||Walking: Yes|
|Appox. Trip Cost||Fairly Expensive|
|Entry Requirements||Passport & Medical insurance. 25 CUC departure tax|
|Didn’t get to do||
|Would I Recommend||Strongly Yes|
|Overall Trip Rating|
|Table of Contents|
|Impacts of the Embargo|
|The Havana Sights|
|Things That Stuck With Me|
|Getting Home & Final Thoughts|
As I discussed in Part 2, getting to Cuba from the US is best done via a 3rd party country – even if you have a license. Since I live in Atlanta, the easiest (and cheapest) method for me was to fly to Cancun then directly to Havana on Cuba’s national carrier – Cubana Airlines. I’d already purchased my airline tickets and tourist visa when I was in Cancun a few months earlier. The way some folks talk about Cuba, everything is tied together with duct tape and wires. While that’s a serious exaggeration, there has been an issue with supplies/spare parts ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why do I bring this up – the Cubana Airlines plane I flew on from Cancun was a 1970s Soviet made jet – which is over 40 years old. I wasn’t worried so much about the safety of the plane itself (both inside and out appeared extremely well maintained); I was more concerned about a maintenance issue delaying or canceling the flight to Havana or returning to Cancun causing me to miss my connecting flight back to the US. Arriving at Havana’s airport was a breeze; the Cuban customs officials processed me through in a matter of minutes. Off to the currency exchange to get some money and catch a cab to my Casa Particular.
Unlike most countries you’ll travel to, Cuba actually has a dual currency system. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is the original government tender and what locals are paid in from their government jobs. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is what all foreigners are issued to make purchases in Cuba that is artificially pegged to the US Dollar at $1.08 plus a 10% conversion tax when converting from US Dollars. To avoid this 10% tax, I ordered a bunch of Euros from Bank of America before I left Atlanta and converted those to CUC in the Havana airport. Keep in mind – the CUC cannot be converted back any currency once you leave Cuba – so be sure to spend it all or convert them back at the airport when you leave. The fact that the CUC is artificially pegged to the dollar and Americans cannot use credit/debit cards makes traveling to Cuba very expensive. Get a least 5 CUC worth of CUP (1 CUP equals .03 CUC or 3.3 cents USD) to save a little when purchasing from street vendors or if you plan to take a local bus.
Once I got my cash, it was time to obtain transportation into the city. Buses are the cheapest option and catching a taxi is the easiest. If you decide to go the taxi route, you should know you will encounter three types during your stay in Havana – official metered, unmetered and Coco Taxis. The CubaTaxi is the official metered taxi in Cuba. Metered taxi rates are very cheap in Havana – but you must make sure the driver uses the meter (he may just quote a price that is usually higher than what the meter rate would have been). Coco Taxis are 3 wheeled open air scooter looking contraptions similar to the Tuk Tuk Taxis I used while in Bangkok. Coco Taxis can be fun to ride around town for very short distances and/or just to experience the ride, but they are fairly expensive when compared to a metered taxi. Unmetered taxis are popular with locals and are frequently the 1950s era cars you see in pictures. Understand it is common for locals to share a taxi – 3-4 different groups heading to multiple destinations is not uncommon. Unmetered taxis also take CUP so I’ll likely save even more (not sure if they also accept CUC).
Speaking of cars, you may have heard there are a ton of 1950s American cars roaming around Havana; which is true, but it’s isn’t like those are the only cars in the country. Although US companies and its foreign subsidiaries are prevented from doing business in Cuba, the Chinese have no such problem – thus Havana’s streets are filled with late-model Chinese imports. As for the 1950s era vehicles, they are very cool to look at and a wonderful experience to ride in the first few times; but that quickly wears off in the heat & humidity as they generally don’t have air conditioning.
Like I talked about in Part Two, I decided to stay in a Casa Particular instead of a hotel. Using WikiTravel’s Havana page, I reached out to a number of Casa owners with questions about per night fees, room/property pictures, additional fees for breakfast/dinner and if anyone spoke English. I settled on a casa in the Vedado neighborhood and we agreed on the price of 35 CUC per night and an arrival and departure date via email. Whichever Casa/hotel you choose, be sure to write/print the address to provide to the taxi driver. Old Havana, Vedado and Playa/Miramar are the best areas to find either a Casa or a Hotel – Frommers has a pretty good ‘Neighborhoods in Brief’ explaining each.
It’s not fair to compare Cuba in terms of economic status and the wellbeing of its citizens to the United States – very few countries in the world compare favorably to the US. The more accurate comparison is to neighboring countries in the Caribbean and Central America. Under that light, in many ways Cuba is most prosperous country in the region. As I alluded to earlier, unemployment is under 2%, homelessness is almost non-existent, all citizens are guaranteed healthcare, a literacy rate that is 2nd highest in the world and a GDP higher than Costa Rica, Jamaica and the Bahamas – combined. Whether you’d benefit in Cuba is directly based on your economic status elsewhere; I have a job & live in the US – so there’s no place I’d rather be. On the other hand, if I was jobless, homeless and/or without healthcare in almost any US city (particularly during the brutal winter season) – I would clearly be better off in Cuba.
That said, Cuba has to deal with circumstances no other country in North America has to deal with – namely the economic embargo imposed by the 800lb gorilla 90 miles from its border. This manifests itself in a number of ways – the most glaring of which are shortages. Shortages of food, medicine, mechanical parts, and supplies – you name it. Those 1950s era cars aren’t all over Cuba because they have an affinity for 60 year old gas guzzlers with no AC; they are there because until China’s very recent global presence in the automobile industry, no one else would trade with them. Lack of agricultural trade with the largest economy in the world further impacts the supply chain. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to simply run out of menu items (2 restaurants I tried to eat at ran out of chicken!) or pass on the increased cost of importing rice all the way from Vietnam on to the general public. Finally, Cuba can’t fall back on US tourism when global import costs rise as the other Caribbean nations can. Yes Canadians, Europeans or those from neighboring Latin American countries do visit Cuba – but who are we kidding; that revenue stream doesn’t begin to compare to the opportunity lost from restricted US tourism.
Since I was staying in a Casa Particular, I figured I’d query Marie and her husband Jose (names changed to avoid any reprisals against them) on their thoughts on the embargo, the US and the Castros.
What do you think of the Embargo?
Jose - It needs to end!
Me - But doesn’t Castro have something to do with that – can he do anything?
Jose - Why would he; using the US as an enemy makes him strong.
What do you think of America and Americans?
Jose – We don’t have any problems with Americans – we appreciate you visiting and staying with us – it helps us tremendously.
Marie – No problems with America visitors, but the way things are (the embargo) just makes things difficult for everyone.
What do you think of Castros?
Jose – I don’t personally have a problem with the Castros. I really don’t care who’s in power, I just don’t want everything to be so expensive. Things our visitors take for granted are very expensive here as many Cubans are paid in Pesos – but most everything is priced in CUC. So, embargo, no embargo, Castro, no Castro, whatever – I just don’t want everything to be so expensive.
Marie – Things were bad under Batista. I remember when I was a child my neighbor was dragged into the middle of the street and executed. The Revolución changed that – things were much better for everyone for years. Then in the 90s, everything started to go bad. (Jay’s Note: The Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s and with it its subsidies of Cuban industry).
I would be remise not to point out that Marie & Jose have it relatively ‘good’. They are fortunate enough to own their own house and be able to rent it out for additional income. In fact, they were well off enough to hire a maid!! A little Capitalism within the Socialist model if you will.
Sex tourism (aka Prostitution) is a big problem in Cuba. Conceptually, I don’t have a problem with consenting adults selling their bodies if that’s what they want to do; so long as they are not forced or coerced. Unless the prostitute is part of some slavery ring – there is a consensual and equal exchange. They choose the life – you chose to pay and both agree to services to be rendered before the event. In Cuba – the person you are dealing with isn’t on equal footing. In the US, one has freedom of movement to locate better opportunities, there is a correlation between better education and a better standard of living, and it is possible for you to win the lottery. None of that is true in Cuba – the lack of choice eliminates the ability of an equal exchange. It is not uncommon to hear of a doctor, engineer or lawyer who is also a prostitute – both men and women. When I was in Miami, a friend of mine mentioned on his trip to Cuba he paid $20 US to be with two women for the entire evening. Now, I’m not the paying for naa-naa type, but even if I were I can’t imagine taking advantage of someone in this way (now that I’m better educated on the Cuban plight). If you Google the issue, I’m clearly in the minority. If you really want to help someone without degrading them in the process, I suggest bringing clothing or everyday household items – such things are in great need and will be greatly appreciated.
These are just a few examples of the embargo’s overall impacts. Certainly the Cuban government (namely the Castros) have some responsibility in this issue – but they don’t have the power to truly affect its change. The embargo doesn’t hurt the government so much as it hurts the people who have to live under it; I assure you Castro and his inner circle aren’t hurting for the daily necessities, running out of supplies or turning to prostitution as some their citizens are. The US government’s general position on the issue is that the Cuban people will rise up, overthrow government and implement western style capitalism is just fucking stupid. You’d think after 50 years – we’d have a better plan of attack.
Next Page: The Havana Sights
Like I said in Part One, I don’t want to give the impression that the only thing to see or do in Cuba is some sort of political science exercise. In fact, Cuba is a wonderfully beautiful city both in terms of landscape and its people. Here are a few attractions I took in during my stay in Havana – every single one of them worthwhile. Remember 1 CUC = 1.20 USD (so 100 CUC is $120 USD) and as an American you won’t be able to reserve/purchase online nor use your credit/debit cards.
The original Tropicana opened in Havana in 1939 and copied in Las Vegas in the 1950s. The Tropicana is both an indoor restaurant and a large outdoor open-air theater. Gone are the days of the extremely risqué burlesque shows, there’s no nudity or even sexually suggestive routines in the show. In addition, it’s no longer a casino as gambling is illegal in Cuba. What the cabaret show does offer are excellently choreographed song and dance routines over about a 2 hour period. Shows run every day except Monday at about 9pm – weather permitting. The show is excellent – rivals anything you’d see on Broadway or Las Vegas. As part of the entry fee, the servers bring over a plate of appetizers, a can of cola, a pint of rum and a decent quality Cuban cigar – try that on Broadway! I won’t lie though – the show is unnecessarily expensive (likely because the audience is 99% tourists). The show plus dinner is $111 CUC; show only is 70 CUC and the fee to take Video is an additional $10 CUC.
La Cabaña Fortress
Originally built in the 18th century to protect Havana against invading forces, it now serves as a giant museum containing artifacts from the period. The fort is allegedly the largest in North America and contains all of the things you’d expect in such a structure including a drawbridge, moat, cannons and watch towers but also includes a few museums. I’d suggest visiting the fort at night for two reasons: first you can take pretty nice night landscape pictures of the Havana skyline from across the bay. Granted, Havana’s skyline isn’t as lit up as most other cities – but it’s still a worthwhile picture. Secondly, a cannon blast ceremony is performed every evening at 9pm sharp. Characters in 1800s military garb get into formation and fire off a blank shell in which the blast can be heard miles across town (locals say they set their watch to the blast). Admission is 5 CUC (I think).
The Malecón is simply a roadway on the seawall against the Havana Bay that stretches from the Havana Harbor to the neighborhood of Vedado. While the 5 mile stretch of road isn’t so much of a an attraction itself – it is where a number of attractions are located including the Hotel National and US Special Interest section. More interesting is the number of sections where waves of water blast over the seawall onto passersby and cars, the teenagers jumping off of the rocks into the water for a swim, excellent panoramic pictures of the Havana skyline and the wonderful Cuban people simply enjoying themselves walking along the shoreline. As I walked along the Malecón looking at the beautiful ocean on one side and miles of vacant and/or dilapidated buildings on the other, I couldn’t help think how bad the Hiltons, Marriotts, etc. of the world are just dying to get a piece of the action. With literally miles of oceanfront property – it’s not hard to imagine Havana turning into Cancun II once the embargo is lifted.
Havana Club Rum Factory
Agriculturally speaking, Cuba has an abundance of sugar cane and tobacco. As sugar is the basis of Molasses – which in turn is the basis of Rum – there is also no shortage of this alcoholic beverage. Havana Club is the most popular brand of Rum in Cuba and they offer a tour of one of their facilities. Though more of a museum than a production facility, there were barrels and vats of rum in various stages of the fermentation process, as well as a history of the Rum producing process starting from the 1700s (detailing slavery’s impact) to current day operations. Tours are conducted by Havana Club employees and are given in Spanish, English, German and I think French. Tours lasts about an hour, costs 14 CUC and you can sample either their light or dark rums at the end of the tour.
Plaza de la Revolución
Sometimes referred to as Revolution Plaza/Square; it is where a number of political rallies take place – some put on by the government others as political protests. In terms of things to see, the most grandiose is the Jose Marti Memorial – which includes a statue of the national hero and an over 350ft tall tower. You can take an elevator to the top of the tower for excellent city views but I can’t remember why I didn’t. Perhaps the most photographed monument in the square is the image of Che Guevara on the outside of the Ministry of the Interior. Just as large of an image is of
Fidel Castro Camilo Cienfuegos on the adjacent building but I don’t know what that building is though which is the Ministry of Informatics and Communication. If you are dying to see and/or ride in a Coco taxi – there are at least 20 of them at any given time in and around the square.
US Special Interest Section
Not much of an attraction (if you can call it that) now that the US has stopped antagonizing the Cuban government – but it is interesting enough to walk/drive by to get a sense of the atmosphere. The Special Interest section is the closest thing the US has to an embassy in Cuba. This was the only time I witnessed police officers numbering more than 1 during the entire time I was in Havana. It’s hard to tell whether their primary goal is to protect the Americans inside from the Cuban population or the Cubans from the American propaganda; perhaps a little of both. Check out the electronic billboard (now turned off) that frequently spewed the US’s political agenda to the Cuban people and the 100 or so flag-poles erected by the Cuban government to obscure said billboard from being seen.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Originally opened in 1930s, the Hotel National is probably the most famous hotel in Cuba – though no longer the most luxurious. If you are looking to stay within the city limits in luxury accommodations with stunning views of the water, this is one of the best places to stay. In addition, there’s a good deal of history within the hotel, including sections built by US mobster Meyer Lansky during the casino years and rooms where Frank Sinatra & Ernest Hemmingway stayed. Believe it or not, fake high-end cigars are a rampant problem in Cuba. Now, even the fake cigars are made from Cuban tobacco (unlike those found in Miami) – they just may not be the Montecristo, Habanos, etc. the seller claims they are. One place you can ensure you are getting the real thing is the Cigar shop in the Hotel National.
Habana Libre (Havana Hilton)
Originally the Hilton Hotel until Castro nationalized the property and made it his headquarters shortly after the Revolution. The property itself is showing its age so the more interesting aspect is the El Turquino club on the top floor of the hotel. Around midnight, the entire the roof opens exposing the moon & stars as partygoers dance into the wee hours of the morning to salsa, reggae and yes – Spanish & American Hip-Hop. (Didn’t get to do).
Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor
Another institution in Havana; Coppelia is a perfect way to get away from the sun and cool off. The complex, which spans nearly an entire city block – has two floors, ice cream serving bar and waiters. You should note that there are two economies for purchasing ice cream from this establishment – the first is intended for locals and the other is intended for tourists. If you are a local, a cup of ice cream is 20 CUD (about 70 cents). If you are a tourist and paying with CUC, you need to walk around the building to a special section and pay 3 CUC ($3.60 US). I asked the guy who raped me took my money whether there’s any difference between the ‘tourist’ and the ‘local’ versions of ice cream. He said the tourist version used real cream instead of powdered milk; a claim I certainly find plausible – but not worth over $3 a scoop! The lesson here is always carry a few CUP for personal items such as street food and unmetered cabs.
National Capital Building
“El Capitolio” was originally the seat of government for the entire country until Fidel’s Revolution. Built in 1930, the capital building’s exterior is almost an exact replica of the US Congress building in Washington, DC – the Cuban version’s dome is exactly 4ft taller than its US counterpart. The irony of this little nugget of information is unbelievable. The building is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
Officially known as the Cathedral de San Cristóbal de La Havana; is a Roman Catholic church in the Old Havana district. According to Wikipedia: “the Cathedral is said to be the only example of a baroque facade that was designed with asymmetrical features” as the left tower is taller and narrower than the right. Even though it’s a popular tourist site, it is also an in service church so be respectful when visiting.
Circa 1950s Auto Tour
Right outside of the Hotel National usually sits 5-10 1950s era American automobiles waiting to take tourists around the city of Havana. Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs and Buicks in several different colors and configurations (several were convertibles) were available for guided tours from 1 to 3 hours. I choose a 1-hour tour in a pink convertible 1952 Buick (I’m not sure what model) – which took me all over the Havana city limits, including the Plaza of the Revolution, up the Malecón, Old Havana and Vedado neighborhoods and Hemingway Marina amongst others. Even stopped at a street food vendor in the middle of the city in what seemed like a swamp/jungle where I was also offered very cheap Montecristos and a pork kebab. Rides start at 20 CUC per hour from Gran Tour Company.
Cementerio de Colón (Cemetery)
If you’ve ever been to the cemeteries in New Orleans, then Havana’s version looks fairly similar. If you haven’t been to an above ground cemetery, Havana’s version compares favorably with just about every one I’ve seen. Around since the 1870s, Colon sits in the middle of the Vedado neighborhood and contains over 800,000 graves and over 500 major mausoleums/family structures – some spanning 30ft into the air. Along with the tombs, vaults and family structures themselves, the front entrance (which was under construction when I visited) and the main chapel are excellent options for taking photos. The HavanaBusTour bus stops right in front of the cemetery entrance if you don’t want to take a cab. Admission is free.
I accomplished a good deal in my 4 days in Havana, but I still missed the opportunity to take the Partagas Cigar Factory Tour due to a little housing snafu. In addition, my early flight out of Havana on Sunday caused me to miss the Sábado de la Rumba – an Afro-Cuban street festival in the Callejón de Hamel district (street art).
Next Page: Things That Stuck With Me
In no particular order of importance, these are the things I experienced and felt while in Havana and since my departure. Some are profound, most not so much – your mileage may vary.
I wanted to know if what I’d heard and read about Cuba was in line with my actual experience and if it changed my perception on the matter in any way. A good deal of the commonly held perceptions about the island were for the most part in line with that narrative, particularly the shortages, socialist underpinnings and beautiful people (both inside and out). I was surprised about how my perception of what a Cuban should ‘look’ like had been shaped by external forces and the fact that some folks are a little more equal than others. I’m even more of a fervent believer that the embargo is not only a complete waste of time; it is in many ways unnecessarily cruel to the average Cuban citizen. For that matter, I’m even less swayed by many of the arguments of the Cuban expat community in the US. Not sure anyone is innocent, yes many have had their homes taken and/or family members jailed/killed – but many if not a significant majority gained that wealth on the backs of others. Not quite slavery, but near indentured servitude. The impact of this clearly evident 50 years later; the Afro-Cubans are still at the bottom of the totem pole. Like most things in life and politics – there aren’t any clearly defined good or bad guys – just shades of grey.
As I departed from Havana back to Cancun, I began wondering how my re-entry into the US was going to play out. As I said in Part Two, there’s nothing to worry about since I was there legally on a General License; I was just curious just how far the Customs Agent would go to review/verify my documents. As I said before, I Might Be a Terrorist – so surely of all people to pull over for additional screening you’d think ME + CUBA is an automatic detention pass. I reached the Customs Agent and handed him my passport with the blue re-entry card that clearly stated “Cuba” in the list of countries I’d visited. He took the documents, typed a few things into his computer, stamped my entry form and said welcome back – without even looking up! What the hell?? All of that F’in work creating documents, getting notarized, etc. and all I get is “welcome back”? All the times you’ve pulled me over for body checks for returning from places like Thailand – but returning from one of the countries on the alleged ‘Terrorist Sponsors’ list – you say “welcome back”? Un-freakin believable. You know the truth though – if I weren’t prepared, he would have given me the 3rd degree so I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry.
I fully intend on visiting Cuba again – the next time armed with a fluency in Spanish. In addition, I long to see other parts of this wonderful country – including Varadero (true tourist area with international hotel chains), Trinidad (world heritage site), the Bay of Pigs and Santiago de Cuba (the country’s second largest and most Caribbean influenced city). Of the three articles in this series, this one is by far based on my personal experiences and opinions. One’s experiences shape their reality – therefore your experience/reality may differ from mine. My suggestion is to use these three articles as guidelines for your travels and visit Cuba yourself to gain your own perspective. Get there before the embargo is lifted and it turns into Cancun II – me thinks it will.
Start Over: Part One: History and Why You Need to Go
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