By Peter Greenough | email@example.com
Having visited every Spanish and Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America over the years, except for Cuba and Honduras, I was eager to see the jewel of the Caribbean under Castro-style socialism – before it is overrun by American tourists or possibly closed again by the Trump administration. In early January, 2017, my son and I took the leap. The trip was so much easier and less bureaucratic than I’d ever have imagined for a country that mostly has been off limits to Americans for more than fifty years. The sizable number of old American cars from the 1950s in Cuba is a visible reminder of more than the five-decades-old US government imposed boycott-trade embargo-travel blockade that was implemented back when the Beach Boys were knocking out classics.
Delta, JetBlue, American Airlines, and some other carriers have flights from various US airports. Delta charged only US $352 round trip including all taxes and fees from JFK, plus $50 at JFK for a visa and the required medical insurance. New plane, leather seats, one third full on a Tuesday for a non-stop three-hour flight to Havana. My son Nick flew on JetBlue from Washington DC via Ft. Lauderdale. We had no bureaucratic hassles leaving the US or arriving in Cuba and were free to roam and use our Spanish person-to-person – many Cubans speak some English. The visit was cheaper than visiting Chicago for a long weekend. Welcome to Latin America!
Cuba has two currencies, one for Cubans (pesos), and one for foreigners called a “kook” and written CUC. Foreign currencies are best exchanged for a favorable conversion rate at the Havana airport. Euros and Canadian dollars, if you have them, are even better to exchange than US dollars since US dollars pay a 10% penalty. I changed only 170 Euros there, and later lost out when exchanging the rest of my budgeted US dollar funds for the week at a big, impressive bank in Old Havana after waiting in line at least an hour. Scarce “cadecas” (FX exchange stores) also have favorable rates, but expect long lines of other foreigners from around the globe. US-issued credit and debit cards are rarely accepted and, even in Havana, ATMs are scarce. Nobody seems to seek or accept payment in foreign currencies, only in CUCs – unlike Mexico and some other nearby countries.
Cuba is amazingly safe, much safer than most places in the US or some parts of Europe – safe like Japan! Everybody agrees on this and incidents are rare. Some scams do exist, so just be sensible and not overly trusting. Don’t leave your purse, wallet, or valuables unattended. We repeatedly walked at midnight through parts of Havana that were dilapidated and poor and learned to not be concerned. Perhaps we could import this valuable feature of Cuba to the US?
Old cars galore
Cubans kindly ignore foreigners rather than gawking, fawning, or pestering them. “Taxi?” is the one thing visitors do encounter. Most of the taxis are late 1940s or 1950s Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths, Chryslers, Dodges, DeSotos, Packards, Mercuries, Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, an occasional American Motors or Nash, and even a rarely seen Kaiser-Frazer or a stray rocket-nosed Studebaker, plus some old Fiats, Soviet-era Ladas, and some Peugeots and Renaults. Models abound that summon Doo Wop music and early Elvis or The Coasters – ’57 Chevies with fins, huge old ’56 Cadillacs, etc.
Because exports of vehicles and replacement parts were embargoed by the US, many oldies have now been converted to diesel engines. Their 50s-style column shifts may remain, but drivers use three on the floor after their conversion to floor/stick shifting. We didn’t see any automatic transmissions. Cars are in every state of repair from the rare pristine to jalopies cum real clunkers that are mostly used for Cuban riders. They often have new paint jobs in garish pinks, reds, greens, blues, and whatever bi-color combinations occurred to the owner. Several taxis we took regaled us in Spanish with the esoterica of their old jalopy being worth about US $30,000 and increasing in local value every year. That is why people drive carefully and never tailgate! Many tourists negotiate a couple of hours spin in an old and often top-down convertible beauty touring Havana with family or friends.
Always ask before getting into a cab, and negotiate, that means politely bargain, a price to your destination with 5-10 CUCs being a common Havana fare for a few kilometers ride in an old or newer car. When did you last ride in a 1951 Chevy sedan anyway? Sexier 1950s cars are a bit more, and convertibles for sure. Get into the spirit and enjoy your stay. Cuba is supposed to be fun! Who cares about riding in a recently imported Korean KIA or Chinese Gilly sedan when 1950s sentimental spirits offer a hoot of a ride that you will always remember?
Where to stay
There are numerous renovated hotels, usually in grand old edifices from the Spanish colonial period or first half of the 20th Century – but make reservations if you go at peak times. Also Airbnb has over 300 listings in Havana, with some in other cities and locations. Most are quite acceptable with photos on the website, priced and paid online from US $25 to less than $100 per night for a few people. Some are apartments, houses, or small European-style pensions. Again, book and pay before you travel. Old Havana and the central parts of Havana are accessible to walk, eat, stroll, visit museums, etc. There is a lot to see. Our two bedroom in a casa particular in Cienfuegos was immaculate for a total of 40 CUC per night including our great 5 CUC breakfasts. Cuba is very cheap! Bring comfortable walking shoes or sandals, and daytime Bermuda shorts, T-shirts, and not much of anything dressy unless you plan to stay in one of the few high-end hotels and step out at night. Casual is the way to fit in.
We learned to each buy a 60 minute Wi-Fi card for 3-4 CUC at big hotels with Wi-Fi and then to access the Internet. Or some young entrepreneurial man on the street nearby will sell you a card that he has purchased in bulk which he scalps to tourists for a small mark up. Just ask at a large hotel and they will inform you what to do, or where you can get cards and Internet service. There wasn’t a Verizon plan for Cuba, so we can’t comment on telephone issues, though we’ve been told you can use your phone for calls and later pay high voice and data rates. We used our iPhones and iPad for email, to FaceTime, and as cameras without any issues – instead of carrying a larger camera.
In Havana we sat with beer and daiquiris in a spacious old hotel lobby with a nice bar and logged on under large vintage framed photos of “Papa” Hemingway in Cuba, since this was a hangout and his Havana residence for about five years. His countryside house is about 40 kilometers outside the city and can be visited by taxi.
What to see
The capital city has many sights and neighborhoods. In general, strolling is the best way to take it in. The exception may be getting to the Malecon, which is the long, wide boulevard and sea wall-protected promenade along the curving Havana sea front. A huge early January storm in the US southeast also whipped up the seas and winds here, so large waves came splashing over this famous area that temporarily was closed off to cars – really dramatic! You can also reach the Malecon by strolling down the long elevated Prado where local artists display their canvases for tourists to negotiate a souvenir to roll up and take home.
Old Havana or “Havana Vieja” is a large area with blocks of beautifully restored colonial buildings, cobblestone streets and plazas lined with outdoor cafés and live Cuban music in the evenings. Other areas of the old city are quainter, or still rundown with locals living in centuries-old buildings lining narrow sidewalks with laundry hanging out to dry and wrought iron-ringed balconies. Don’t miss visiting the Museo de La Revolucion, which chronicles the Cuban government’s version of the lead-up to and events of the Castro-led Revolution, and its politics and achievements since then. Both the US and Cuban versions should probably be taken with a healthy grain of salt. You may not agree, but this museum is well worth seeing, including parts of an American U2 spy plane shot down over Cuba in 1962 during the missile crisis period. There is a reason that the revolution succeeded, and you may begin to understand it after your visit. And be glad that JFK deftly managed the removal of the Soviet missile threat.
The more than four centuries (1589) old Spanish forts lining the entrance to Havana’s harbor are spectacular and best visited in the morning or late afternoon when the Caribbean sun is less intense. Who knew that the British took Havana? Consult your guidebook (Lonely Planet probably is the best) for ideas and the array of other things to see and do in Cuba. Be sure to read up beforehand about Havana and Cuba on Wikipedia, Wikitravel.com, and elsewhere.
In our nearly 300km trip southeast to old Cienfuegos on the southern coast, with nearby Playa Luna for excellent snorkeling and spear fishing, the decently maintained “Autopista Nacional” highway passes through agricultural regions. Traditional Latin American panoramas of country life abound; palm, banana, mango, papaya, flamboyant, and other trees border poorly cultivated pastures with Cebu and other cattle. Large fields of sugar cane in various stages of cultivation are observed, from fields of sprouting shoots to those ready for the harvesting of the ten-feet-high canes that will be converted to sugar and other derivative cane products like rum. Not much machinery was visible other than some dated tractors, tillers, and a few harvesting machines. Horses and horse-drawn carts provide transportation in the rural areas along with old trucks and the frequently stopping passenger buses. Individual houses are not well maintained; some have little vegetable gardens, a few chickens and possibly a scrawny guard dog hanging out nearby. The exposed soil is usually bright clay red, washed by intense tropical rains that have removed unprotected topsoil. Picturesque roadside juice and coffee stops, or occasional open air thatched restaurants, provide a chance to eat and stretch in peaceful country settings.
Using rented equipment, my son snorkeled at Playa Luna, 17km further east of historic Cienfuegos, and was surprised by the variety of reefs, colors, and abundant sea creatures. For lunch under a tree on the beach, we enjoyed the fish he had speargunned that was cooked at a tiny open air beach café and washed down with beer and mojitos – and big smiles at our luck. The woman who served us was a government employee and we learned she only earns the equivalent of US $15 each month. We left her a 10 CUC tip and she cried. She said that day was the first time she had ever served Americans. The snorkeling guide and his equipment for a few hours cost only 10 CUC.
East of Havana some 140 kilometers on the northern coast is Varadero, a long narrow international tourist beach hotels destination somewhat analogous to Mexico’s Cancun. We did not visit, though over one million do every year according to Wikipedia (mostly Canadians and Europeans) who fly into that airport from abroad. But we didn’t go to Cuba to be at a resort.
The customary Cuban food is tasty and very cheap, with variations on chicken, pork, beef, and seafood. Like most standard Cuban meals, rice, platano (Plantain), manioc (yucca), and black or red beans are the accompanying fare along with some vegetable. My best meal was a Ropa Vieja (“old clothing”) which is a traditional Cuban dish of stewed shredded beef in delicious sauce. My son’s favorites were a pork loin in sauce and a stewed chicken meal. Cubans prefer dark meat chicken legs and thighs, often deboned, rather than the white breast meat that Americans seem to expect.
Food preparation and offerings in Cuba run the gamut in quality and taste, and price is no sure determinant of how delectable it will be. There is no shortage of places to eat, from luxury hotels to modest little cafés. Most entrée plates are less than 12 CUC or so, often 4-6.
Cubans are known for their skill at cooking pork in various tasty ways. Other common menu items are paellas, Criollo dishes, good breakfast café con leche, freshly prepared tropical fruits and juices, ham, some basic good cheeses, and desserts like flan, ice creams, and cakes. Expresso and cocktails, many types of Cuban rum, and local and imported beers are ubiquitous and cheap. Even a serving of imported Scotch whisky often is only 3-4 CUCs.
Cuba had a roughly four century-long colonial history under Spanish rule until 1898, and there are intact buildings galore in most towns and cities from what we could see. Havana is now celebrating the 497th year of its founding. Enjoy wide prados, nice central plazas with palms and trees shading benches, old churches, arcade walkways along blocks of old colonial buildings with shops where one strolls protected from the hot sun and tropical rains. Like most Latin cities, with litter and sidewalks not in great shape, many are swept most every morning when the roosters are crowing.
Cubans are remarkably calm, and not upset, bitter, or unhappy – something I wish we Americans could observe about our fortunate selves. They look people in the eye when speaking, are warm, listen attentively, and are responsive and respectful. Eye contact is considered an invitation to chat. Cuba is peaceful and safe, and that was a big surprise because much of Latin America isn’t. We did not see one argument, unpleasantness, fight, violence, or crime anywhere. We didn’t encounter any obese Cubans, only the tourists were overweight. The scarce police carry a police baton, are strolling, have no guns, and are pleasant and barely noticeable with no apparent need to harass anyone or assert their authority. We repeatedly were told that crime is scarce, though many buildings do have the traditional Latin crafted wrought iron window and door grates – perhaps a stylistic colonial holdover from more socially conflicted pre-revolutionary times (1959) and going back centuries.
Air pollution is a big problem in Cuba, primarily caused by the diesel powered vehicles lacking any modern emission controls – cars, trucks, buses, scooters, put-put taxis, small cc 2 cycle motorcycles, etc. But bicycles, pedi-cabs, horse-drawn carts, and a few larger horse carriages are also common. Walking is best, slowing down to observe and appreciate this trove of interesting and varied new sights. To repeat, nobody bothers tourists other than the frequent taxi invitations and maybe an occasional invitation from a hospitable shopkeeper in tourist areas.
Animals in Cuba serve two purposes: for food and for labor, with minimal concern for their grooming or signs of affection from their owners. Not many pets are in evidence; dogs are often scavengers and accustomed to barking when strangers come near, from what we could tell. Street cats exist to keep the rodent population under control. Caged birds caught our eyes only twice in our week in Cuba. Wild birds are not common. There do seem to be many roosters vocalizing, even in urban locations like a block from Cuba’s Capitol building (modeled on the US Capitol).
What is there to buy to take home? Rum (about 10 CUC), cigars (Cohibas to MonteCristos), leather goods, papier-mâché, ceramics, carved handicrafts, earrings, key chains, handmade cloth dolls, Cuban music CDs, artisan mobiles, painted birds and fish, bracelets, carvings, aluminum and wood jewelry, T-shirts, straw hats (3-25 CUC), lots of colorful tourist paintings, shell or stone items, apparel, sandals, scarves, some toys, etc. My favorite was a handmade textile doll purchased for my young granddaughter with a reversible long skirt and two heads and torsos, white or black, depending on the skirt location.
We saw no antique stores, and my wife’s one request to bring back an old Cuban ceramic floor tile gift was unrequited. If you get to the airport for departure from Cuba and still have some leftover CUCs in your pocket, you can buy various items in the shops, including rum, cigars and souvenirs, on both sides of the hassle-free immigration and security before boarding your flight home.
Musings at departure
My son and I kept asking ourselves what is the political and economic path that would improve the lives of Cubans. While destroying the privileged life of some Cubans, the Castro Revolution improved most Cubans’ lives – something few Americans know or acknowledge. But Cubans lost other important things, that most of them never really had anyway.
Cuban literacy has risen from 10% pre-Revolution to almost 99.8% (#11 globally) today versus the US (#45) with 32 million illiterate US adults and 21% of US adults reading below a fifth grade level, all according to the CIA World Fact Book. Also nearly comparable with the US, Cuba has a life expectancy at birth of 78.7 years (#55) while the US has a life expectancy of only 1.1 years longer (#42). All Cubans have access to good free basic healthcare and education.
But Cubans do not have basic political freedoms or much hope for their lives improving. Or much crime, addictive drugs, or gun deaths. It does cross one’s mind in pondering all this, was there a reason that Fidel, Che, and Camilo started the 1957 Revolution that succeeded? These are not things you should try to discuss with Cubans or publicly.
The Castro regime’s expropriation of foreign corporations’ investments and wealthy family’s holdings (real estate, telecom, oil refineries, banks, sugar, casinos, etc.) may have blinded us to considering why the revolt against the Batista regime succeeded many years ago. If the US at some later point had treated nearby Cuba as a difficult cousin and troubled neighbor, and not implemented the half century plus embargo, perhaps Cuba would have evolved into a normal Latin American neighbor with the usual internal problems, more political freedoms, and a stronger economy. Where do you come out? Younger Miami Cuban-Americans seem to be much more amenable to considering how to re-integrate Cuba and the US for their mutual benefit after both sides having been so provocative over the years. It could be a beautiful thing to again be friendly neighbors. You will have a lot to think about while flying northward to our divided, free, and plentiful country. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Go see Cuba for yourself…