Because there are not a lot of flights to Havana we had to leave Washington DC on the 7:35 am flight—another ungodly departure time and our flight was out of Baltimore Washington International meaning it was about an hour drive from our Airbnb in Columbia Heights. At 4:15 am our Uber picked us up for the uneventful drive to the airport. Boy, were we surprised when we got there and saw the mob of people at the Delta counter. We were more than 2 hours early for our flight and the line seemed endless.
Airports teach me patience! The trip to Atlanta is not a long one and we were impressed with the efficiency of Delta to guide us to the right gate where we were met by folks who helped us complete our visa forms. Upon arrival in Havana, however, we ran into the same problem we had before. Our driver, whom we had arranged for through our Airbnb was no where to be found. We exchanged money at the airport (as American credit cards are generally not accepted in Cuba) and when a gentleman came up and asked if we needed a taxi we took him up on his offer. He walked us across the parking lot to his 1953 Plymouth. He spoke no English but we had written the address of our Airbnb on a piece of paper knowing there is no internet at the Havana airport and in a short time we had arrived at our destination. (The best we can surmise is that our original driver went to the wrong terminal.)
Our Airbnb is lovely. It’s upstairs in the Vedado neighborhood, one of three major areas of Havana. Vedado, the Spanish word for forbidden, is where the mobsters and big shots from the 1920’s lived!
Our apartment has a large sitting room area with a kitchen and two bedrooms each with its own bath. It has lovely terrazzo floors, a flatscreen TV, a gas stove. Each Cuban is allowed to own only one property so our apartment is separated from the owner’s by folding doors. But the very best part of our abode is the porch with chairs and swing. We’ve found Latinos, in Costa Rica, Panama and now Cuba really make good use of their outdoor spaces!
The woman we rent from is lovely and to have her right next door makes asking questions very convenient. She speaks more English than I speak Spanish and together we communicate pretty well. She has an assistant who speaks no English but again with hand signals and my limited Spanish we do okay.
The old cars are everywhere. We are a block off a main street with a constant flow of taxis…both old classics as well as newer ones.
The old cars are so ubiquitous that we began to think every man in Havana must be a mechanic. (We did have a few female cab drivers while in Cuba but we met no women who drove classic cars. ) The interiors of the cars are interesting as well…with different sources of music.
The outside may be a 55 Chevy, or a 53 Buick but the inside is a conglomeration of whatever parts can be found. In addition, some have flash drives that are rigged into the dash. One even had a screen that showed the video with the music. Some have air conditioning. Some are plush. One we rode in had metal floor boards. But all the owners are very proud of their possessions! One can only imagine what they would sell for in the US.
Cuba is very safe. Whenever we are home, the door to our apartment is open, not just unlocked, but actually open throughout the day until we go to bed. We walk places after dark without hesitation. People are very friendly. We aren’t far from a large hotel, La Melia Cohiba, part of a Spanish chain. Shortly after we arrived, we wandered in and asked the concierge, Osiris, about suggestions for a couple of side trips we wanted to make. Take about a wealth of knowledge! We weren’t thrilled with the idea of a bus trip so we were delighted when Osiris suggested a private driver. She called him and for $150 a day he would be ours 24/7! He would take us wherever we wanted to go. Our son, Patrick, was coming to spend a week with us, so we decided to schedule two trips while he was in Cuba. Actually hiring a private driver was cheaper than it would have been for the three of us to take a bus trip! Osiris also arranged a three hour tour in a classic convertible for us and gave us numerous suggestions for other entertainment!
Cuba uses two currencies: the convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso, moneda nacional (MN). It’s not difficult to maneuver. There are about 23 Cuban pesos to the CUC though it varies from place to place and item to item. As a tourist all we really had to know were CUCs. The only tricky parts are: 1) estimating how much money you’ll need for the time you’re visiting since once we arrived we wouldn’t be able to access any money from the States and 2) converting to CUCs only the money we would spend. Cuba charges the US tourist an extra 10% on the exchange. They don’t do that on Euros or Pounds Sterling so if you can bring either of those currencies, you’re money ahead! Also when we left we didn’t want to have money left over because they will charge that same 10% again to change back into dollars.
There are various codecas (places that just change money) throughout the country and we found hotels will change money for us as well. The exchange rate at the time of this writing has been .87 including the 10% so the CUC costs $1.13. One really good thing is that the exchange rate is the same throughout the country; it doesn’t vary from hotel, to bank, to codeca.
Cuba is a very poor country economically and we were told that the average Cuban earns about $35 a month. We’re confused how that’s calculated because it would seem that the tips (from foreigners) that taxi drivers and wait staff receive would skew that number. But maybe that’s just in Havana. In any event, the average Cuban has little disposable income.
Because American credit cards are not generally accepted Americans have to do everything in cash. We had booked our Airbnb online with our credit card so we were just bringing money for food, entertainment, and souvenirs. We have not found Cuba to be an expensive country except for their taxis and those fares are always negotiable. We’ve found taxis, at least in Havana, to be about the same as Ubers in DC. Gas is about $5 a gallon, and I’m certain the old cars do not get very good mileage. In addition taxis are primarily used by tourists allowing the drivers to charge more. There are also shared taxis, old cars that stop and pick up people along the street and then along the way to their destination others pile in. The charges for these are about 50 cents, and I believe they’re mostly used by locals. We always try to keep some money in a separate place for the taxi or the incidentals so we aren’t bringing out large bills for every exchange. And generally when we go out, we take no more than a hundred dollars each with us, keeping most of our money back in our apartment along with our passports. We carry copies with us as foreigners are supposed to have identification on them at all times. The hotel clerk suggested small bills and we’ve found it’s also helpful to have some small coins for street performers, bathroom attendants, etc.
While we really enjoy Cuba there are a few drawbacks. The air, in Havana in particular, is really polluted. The old cars, as well as trucks and busses, belch out dark noxious smoke. Also, tap water is not drinkable. So you have to rely on bottled water and in the heat, we consume a lot. We found most grocery stores have lots of empty shelves and I think being a creative cook here is really a gift. It would be difficult to plan your meals and then go to the store and purchase the items. In any case, you would have to stop at numerous stores. For instance, the grocery store nearest our apartment never had water. We never saw cheese or milk in any store. Paper products also seem to be in short supply. We only found toilet paper for sale on one occasion. (I carried a roll in my day pack when we traveled because so many bathrooms, including museums, often do not have any.) And fresh vegetables are in short supply. Sunday must be a delivery day as we saw on two different occasions lots more items available on Sunday than any other day. But the lines are long and because there are no scanners and cashiers have to enter all items in by hand, they’re very slow!
It’s not uncommon when going to a restaurant for staff to tell you a particular entre isn’t available, or a juice (even if you had it the previous day) or ice! But restaurant staff are exceedingly pleasant and most speak some English! We encountered numerous street venders walking through the neighborhood calling out the offerings: bananas, onions, garlic and tamales, among them. The first time the ice cream man came down the street we smiled at the recorded music coming from his cart: Clementine, No Place Like Home and Happy Birthday. Most restaurants and some shops are air conditioned and if we avoided the middle of the day, the heat wasn’t repressive. And evenings were very comfortable. (Everyone one, including animals has their unique way of keeping cool!)
While our Airbnb had free wifi, the wifi is available only for limited hours during the day, and never when I needed it. We did buy Cuban data cards on Amazon before we left the country (for $25 for 100 mb). These worked fine on our phones but 100 mb goes really fast. In most hotels you can buy a wifi card for 4.5 cucs for an hour. While we originally thought it would be nice to be disconnected, there were times when it was terribly inconvenient especially at the airport.
Havana seems to have more museums than any city we’ve visited. The one we particularly wanted to see was The Museo de la Revolucion. It’s housed in the former presidential palace. The Salon de los Espejos (Room of Mirrors) was designed by Tiffany’s and modeled after Versailles.
It’s a very beautiful building. Starting on the top floor this museum tells the story of the revolution from its beginning to today. We were relieved that the text was almost totally in Spanish with few English captions so we didn’t have to read everything. It’s obviously the Cuban perspective on the revolution. And like the rest of Cuba, there’s no shortage of propaganda. It also includes caricatures of several American presidents (along side Batista) that we found amusing. After touring the building, there is a second structure behind the museum where the Granma is displayed in a glass case. The Granma is the yacht that carried Castro and 81 other revolutionaries from Tuxpan, Mexico to Cuba in 1956.
Everywhere we look there are banners of the organization of the revolution also known as July 26. Throughout the country we’ve seen signs and posters celebrating this the 59th anniversary.
Every neighborhood has a CDR House. These houses are staffed with volunteers who help ensure that people are being compliant. And while we have seen few pictures of Fidel anywhere in the country, everywhere we turn we are confronted with another statue, poster, billboard or picture of Che. It appears that Jose Marti is the real hero for the Cuban people. He was a poet journalist and philosopher and led the Cuban people in the Second War of Independence in the 1890’s prior to the Spanish American War. He was Fidel Castro’s hero.
One of the first trips we asked Osiris to arrange for us was a visit to a tobacco plantation. She contacted Lazuro for us and on Monday morning he picked us up in his 2002 (very new by Cuba standards) air conditioned Toyota and off we went. It was about a 3 hour drive to the southwestern part of Cuba where the best tobacco in Cuba, some say in the world, is grown. When we arrived there, we were impressed by how non-commercial the tour was. Lazuro knew the owners and there probably were another 50 – 100 tourists milling around the plantation. We first went to the drying shed. One of the plantation tour guides explained (in English and Spanish) the quality of the leaves, growing conditions and then passed around tobacco for us to smell the difference before and after it had been processed. From there we climbed to a shed on stilts where we could view the plantation and here a different plantation tour guide demonstrated the rolling of a cigar. He offered each of a free cigar. We could also buy cigars from him: either in packs of 14 (45 cucs) or 20 (60 cucs). (Cuban cigars don’t get their product branding until they leave the country. And in the US each of these would sell for $20 – $30.) All product is owned by the government; they take 90% the individual owners get 10%. But we were told tobacco growers do well.
After the tour Lazuro took us to Ecologica, a restaurant well hidden in the valley. Everyone there appeared to either be a local or be accompanied by one. The food was unbelievable. Lazuro explained the there was no menu. They served tables. First they brought yucca chips and plantain chips, next they brought the most amazing vegetable soup which was served with a platter of additional chunks of sweet potato we could add to our soup. We commented that we would have been happy with that alone for lunch. But that was soon followed salad which was tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, lettuce and cabbage.
That was followed by black beans and rice and platters of pork, fish, chicken and beef. This dinner made Thanksgiving look like a light meal. Finally we were offered coffee and dessert which was flan. A coconut milk drink was also served and accompanied by a bottle of rum that was placed on the table to be added to the drink as diners desired. All the food was served family style and all courses were eaten in the soup bowl. (The total bill for our four was 40 cucs!) After dinner we viewed and wandered briefly through the farm on the way back to the car. They raise all their own food and the owners are very proud of their accomplishment! (It’s only been since 2010 that private restaurants could exist in Cuba.)
On the way back to Havana we stopped at the Parque Nacional in Vinales. Here The Mural de la Prehistoria is painted on the rock walls. The mural represents evolution and was placed here because of all the fossils found in the area. It was designed in 1961 and took four years to complete.
Besides cigars, rum is Cuba’s other big export! So it seemed appropriate that we should visit the Museo de Ron located in old town. While the tour is only about half an hour long it’s very interesting.
The guide took us through the historical building describing the history and process as we went. One of the most interesting parts was the model train of the sugar cane plantation. (It was built by a Pennsylvanian who won an international competition for it.) Of course at the end we got to sip the product! But again 90% of profit goes to the government and the plantation owners only get 10%!
We had read that Trinidad is a very interesting city south of Havana so we decided to take a two day jaunt there and on the way stop in Santa Clara which is located right in the middle of the island. We particularly wanted to visit the Ernesto Che Guevara monument, mausoleum and museum. After Marti Che is Cuba’s second hero! Santa Clara is important because it’s the site where in December 1958 Che and other revolutionaries blew up a Cuban armored train and just a few days later Batista fled the country.
This appears to be when Dictator Fulgencio Batista began to take the revolutionaries seriously. It’s difficult to describe how omnipresent Che is in Cuba, even half a century after his death. Everywhere we turned there were busts, billboards, signs on buildings, tote bags, tee shirts, hats, all with his iconic picture on them. In 1987, on the 20th anniversary of Che’s murder in Bolivia, the statue in the plaza in Santa Clara was dedicated to his life. There’s an eternal flame in the mausoleum that was lit by Fidel in 1997. Most of the exhibits were labeled only in Spanish but when I got out my phone to translate I was immediately accosted by a guard who yelled at me: “No, no, no!” I quickly put my phone away, afraid that I could have it confiscated. We also wanted to see the statue of Che and Nino. This turned out to be a challenge. Our driver must have stopped a half dozen times to ask for directions. Finally, we spotted it. Because it is much smaller than the massive statue we had seen on the other side of town, we had missed it. This one shows Che with a baby in his arms symbolizing the next generation. His belt buckle also displays likenesses of the 28 men who were with him when he was killed in Bolivia.
Before moving on, Lazuro asked a local for a place for lunch. Bob and Patrick said it was the best beans and rice they had ever had. Lunch for four, including beverages, entre and the rice and beans came to less than $12.
The drive on to Trinidad was another three hours and the roads in Cuba are a challenge. Lazuro weaved in and out to avoid the largest pot holes and to protect his car. Along the road are occasional check points. And while we were never stopped, the police can wave over any car they wish and search it as well as the occupants’ papers.
After winding through the Escambray Mountains, we first stopped at the Manaca Iznaga. This is an estate dating from the 1700s and was owned by one of the area’s richest men who made his money in slave trading. There is a huge observation tower that was used to watch the slaves. We viewed the enormous sugar press that was powered by the slaves and while the heat and humidity were really stifling just to sightsee, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like for the slaves. We could only wonder how many lives were lost.
Another half hour and we arrived at our destination! Trinidad is a colonial city of about 52,000 located not far from the southern coast of Cuba and declared a UNESCO site in 1988. It’s like something out of a novel. Cobblestone streets, horse carts and automobiles mix like a mismatch of time periods. Although there were lots of tourists, the city still feels very authentic. We wandered through the streets visiting the Municipal Museum and also the Museum of Architecture. The Plaza Mayor, is the center square of the town. Warm and tired we found a table and sipped drinks as we listened to Cuban music.
Lazuro had called in advance and arranged for a room for us to stay at a local hostel. From the city he wound our way on cobblestones and dirt streets. How he knew where to turn we still aren’t sure but finally he arrived at the door of Chachi’s Hostal (Calle A#14 el Carretera La Boca y Calle 2da, (Rpto La Purisima), Trinidad Phone: (+53) 53 419520) What a find! The owners are lovely people! Our room had a double bed and single bed. There was an air conditioner. A television. We had a private bath with shower. Because we thought we were pretty far from restaurants we had decided to eat at the hostel. Bob and Patrick went down without me as I was pretty tired. When they returned after dinner I asked what they had eaten. Lobster and barracuda they responded. I thought they were kidding. But no, that’s what they ate! Chachi’s friend had caught the barracuda, and lobster is caught off the coast of Cuba as well. (So much for my theory that lobster comes from the cold waters of the North Atlantic!) And breakfast was just as amazing the next day with ham and egg omelets, toast, fresh fruit and juice and coffee. And even though the hosts spoke no English, and Lazuro’s English was limited as was our Spanish, we all managed to communicate. When we went to check out our bill which included: our room, Lazuro’s room, 3 dinners, and 4 breakfasts totalled 75 cucs! I highly recommend this hostel.
After wandering a bit through the city we checked out Playa Ancon, a pretty Caribbean beach. We settled ourselves under a thatched umbrella and enjoyed the view for an hour or so.
Then we headed back to Havana via Cien Fuegos. Cien Fuegos is perhaps the loveliest town we saw. The Lonely Planet refers to it as the Paris of Cuba, if Cuba has a Paris. The main street is lined with building after building fronted with columns. I read (also in The Lonely Planet) that some Canadians offer a two week Spanish immersion program in Cien Fuegos. Academia Cienfuegos offers 30 hours of language classes with 25 hours of cultural activities. This really sounds like a fabulous course. Anyone out there want to join me in taking it?
We hired (once again with Osiris’ help) a driver for a three hour tour of Havana. We decided on late afternoon when the heat wouldn’t be as intense. Ramses, our guide, was a young man, a recent economics graduate from the University of Havana. His car was a red 1955 chevy convertible. He first took us to see the embassys, and then Gandhi Park with a statue of Gandhi surrounded by beautiful banyan trees. The American Embassy is near the sea with the Anti-Imperialist Park in front of it and with large poles which were installed to block the view of the Embassy.
We walked through a lovely neighborhood, Fusterlandia, started twenty years ago that is filled with ceramic art work.
(We’ve generally been impressed with the emphasis on art in Cuba. The limited television stations show a lot of classical music. And PBS type shows.) The artist, Jose Fuster, started the artwork in his home and now it permeates the entire neighborhood. From a variety of mosaic tiles, he has created pictures of the granma, of Che.
We visited the Plaza Revolucion. This is where Castro made most of his speeches. There is a huge memorial to Jose Marti that is about 340 feet and is the tallest building in Havana. The Building of the Interior has the likeness of Che on it and the Cienfuegos is memorialized on the Ministry of Informatics and Communications. When we were there Cubans were practicing for the big May Day celebration.
We also walked through the Hotel Nacional, a classic hotel that made me feel like I was back in the 1920’s. There are tables al fresco with gorgeous views of the straits of Florida. (Our son is pretty sure he caught a glimpse of Benecio del Toro walking out of the hotel.) And finally we drove along the Malecon, an 8 kilometer stretch of road along the sea.
We find that Ernest Hemingway is almost as omnipresent in our travels as Che is in Cuba. When we were in the Florida Keys, there are several “Ernest Hemingway was here” sorts of places.
In Pamplona Spain there is a statue to him outside the bull ring. And in Havana there are several bars that claim to have been his hangout. (We decided not to visit his home here because you can’t enter the building only look through the windows.) As we were walking one day, a guy passed Bob and remarked, “Hemingway!” (Hmmm….that happened in Rome as well!)
It’s hard to say if Cuba met my expectations because I had no idea what to expect. But it’s been a fabulous three weeks. My favorite part of Cuba has been the people. They are exceedingly friendly! Patrick was wearing a Chicago Cubs cap and getting out of a taxi the hotel doorman commented, “Chicago Cubs World Champions!” When Patrick’s flight was over 3 hours late arriving and our taxi driver couldn’t wait with us any longer at the airport because he had another appointment, he apologized and refused to take a tip. The neighbors where we live are all very friendly. People on the street initiate conversation always interested in sharing their connections to the United States.
One afternoon the woman we rented from said she and her assistant would like to make us lunch. No charge; it was just something they wanted to do. The next day we were treated to several of Cuba’s national dishes: salad, chicken, black beans, rice, and wonderful local coffee! Really delicious.
Because Patrick’s departing flight, three days earlier, was delayed several hours we decided to get to the airport really early but were pleasantly surprised by how easily we got checked into our flight. The clerk asked if we had enjoyed our stay and when we responded positively, he said, “Tell your friends.” After moving through security, I was waiting for Bob to put his belt back on and it was a bit unsettling to have a guard come up to me and ask to see my passport and boarding pass. Then she asked to see Bob’s and then replied, “Ok, no problems.” Whew! I wasn’t ready for that.
The idea of the CDR houses expecting volunteers to tattle on their neighbors, the inability of citizens to travel beyond Cuba, the constant monitoring of activities, the lack of access to the internet, as well as the constant propaganda becomes stiffling over time and makes me realize how very lucky I am to have been born an American. Hopefully, with increased access to the internet and the rest of the world, things will continue to become more open for the Cubans. In the meantime I am really glad we were able to travel to this very interesting place and meet such wonderful people!