OK, so by now the U.S. is allowing its citizens to visit Cuba. BUT…when we booked this trip ten months ago, it was still all kinds of illegal. This was the real reason for our trip to Panama. As of our visit, there were still no direct flights to Cuba. In addition, Americans were unable to travel to Cuba from any country that has U.S. customs agents at its airports, so Canada was out. But we’re not about 60-year-old politics; we’ve got a world to experience! So off we went.
A few days before our departure, I casually asked Stephanie if we would be able to use credit cards there. Good thing I did! Thanks to the U.S. embargo, Cuba is almost completely disconnected from the international financial system. Translation: American credit, debit and ATM cards would not work. We also found that Cuba charges a 10% service charge to exchange American dollars – in addition to whatever commission charge or bad exchange rate they’re giving us.
While in Panama, we estimated what we’d need for our trip, and traded dollars for Euros to avoid the penalty. Bad move. It turned out that between the exchange rate in Panama and the exchange rate in Cuba, we might as well have brought our U.S. greenbacks with us. At least it took us less than two minutes to see our first vintage American cars.
We took a shared taxi from the airport, and marveled at all the old cars. American cars stopped arriving in Cuba in the early 60s, and the Cubanos have really maintained these vintage monsters from the 40s & 50s. At least 40% of the cars in Cuba are a good 50 years old. It’s like going to a classic car show. The old cars against the backdrop of old buildings makes you feel like you just stepped back in time to the 1950s.
We had initially wanted to couchsurf in Cuba, but we learned that in order to have people stay with you, you have to be licensed by the government and pay a hefty monthly fee – whether or not you actually have guests. As a result, everyone charges. There’s no escaping it. We hooked up with a nice guy on couchsurfing, who directed us to a hostel that only charged $8 per night. Not bad when everyone else charges $25.
For those of you who say to us “I wish we could travel like you do,” this might be one of those moments to rethink that. Our room had four sets of bunk beds, and they were all full. It also had fans, but no AC in the humid, 90 degree weather. The bunk beds were no big deal; fortunately, Stephanie and I can fit together in a single, so we had the upper bunk for our stuff, and the lower bunk for us. The bigger problem by far was sharing a room with snorers. (Pro tip: If you snore, try NOT sleeping on your back. You’ll just keep the rest of us up.) Also, and we’re not sure if this is normal or not, but the hostel kept losing water, which meant there was often no way to cool off even if you were willing to hop in the shower! Anyway, our hostel owner was nice. She didn’t speak a lick of English, but she did keep our laptops under lock-and-key for us.
After dropping our stuff at our hostel, we grabbed a couple of $1 milkshakes, and walked along the Malecon (waterfront) to Old Havana. The best part is that there isn’t a single chain hotel or restaurant anywhere! No Starbucks, no KFC, no Marriott, no Subway. This is what life was like before the corporations took over.
On our first full day, we really hit Havana hard (English-language guidebook courtesy of our hostel). We walked down Calle Obispo and just took it all in. Stephanie hates when I compare the real world to Disney World, but you can see where Pirates of the Caribbean drew some of its inspiration.
It was here that we made one of our best discoveries about Cuba and finally understood why the hostels there don’t bother to open their kitchens for use by us backpackers. The food is cheap. I mean really cheap. We ended up getting a couple of burgers for 32 cents each. Hot dogs were 24 cents, and we topped it off with hand-made guava ice cream for 12 cents a cone. Jackpot!
That being said, you have to know how to find the really really cheap food. Cuba still uses two currencies, and it’s the places that take the older, no-longer-official currency that have the cheap eats. Don’t have the old currency? No worries. Just hand over the new ‘Convertible’Pesos and you’ll get change in the old Monedad Nacional (National money).
Yeah, yeah, we also did some cultural stuff. We saw Ernest Hemingway’s favorite hangout for mojitos – “El Bodeguita del Mundo.” (I question the cultural value of this just a wee bit – Stephanie.)
We saw the Florida hotel, and Johnson’s drugstore restored to the way they were in the late 1800s.
We took in Cathedrals, old plazas and the waterfront.
We even went to a “chocolate museum,” which was really just a pricey chocolate café with a few vintage exhibits in glass cases. It was okay though, since Stephanie mostly cared about eating the chocolate anyway.
We opted to check out the car museum, but if you ever go to La Habana (the Spanish name of the city), you can totally skip it. It was a warehouse with about 20 cars (not all of which were old), and barely any information on any of them. Here are some pics anyway…
There is also live music anywhere that people are eating. This band caught me filming so I had to tip them…
The real surprise came on the day we took a $5 bus (roundtrip) to the beaches at Playas del Este. This beach just outside of Havana is one of the most stunning we have ever seen. Picture in your mind a stereotypical Caribbean beach. You know, sugary white sand, crystal blue water, palm trees full of coconuts leaning out over the ocean. That’s exactly what this beach looks like. Amazing considering how close it is to a large city.
That night, we met up with our friend, Juan, from couchsurfing. From him we learned a lot about Cuba, and the real effects of the Socialist government. For example, the average wage of a government worker is $22 per month! There are entrees at the Cheesecake Factory that cost more than that! Citizens were not allowed to own cell phones until about five years ago. And don’t even get me started on the lack of internet access for these poor people.
(Okay, I got myself started.) There’s no such thing as free WiFi or in-home WiFi service anywhere – it’s all paid for by the minute. But so many sites are blocked, Juan said the people just don’t know much about the outside world. He’s a programmer so he gets access to many things the average person does not.
We got an idea of what the information stream is truly like when he told us about Obama’s visit there. Apparently the people liked him, and Juan saw his speeches on YouTube. But the average person doesn’t see that, and the government felt threatened by Obama’s popularity. So they altered the speeches when they quoted them in newspapers – and that’s what the average person saw.
Cuba was a real-life cultural experience in so many ways. I’m extremely grateful for the freedoms I often take for granted. I’m also really glad we got to visit Cuba before American franchises and tourists change everything about Havana. No doubt about it though, the expanded tourism will mean a better quality of life for the Cuban people, and that’s a good thing.