When we landed in Miami Monday afternoon after nine days in Cuba, one of the first things that popped up on Patty’s phone was the score from Sunday’s Super Bowl game. That was the first we had heard of the result. And that’s a reflection of how different a world we had been in, even though Cuba is just a puddle jump away from the U.S. by plane.
We had talked and dreamed for nearly two years about going to Cuba, and it more than lived up to our expectations.
On the one hand, Cuba is a place of charm, beauty and energetic, resourceful people. On the other, it’s a place of crumbling infrastructure, abject poverty and totalitarian government that keeps the populace firmly under its heel. In any event, it’s an eye-opening, enthralling place to visit.
For the first seven days we were on an organized, educational tour operated by a company called Cuba Explorer and sanctioned by the U.S. government. The sanctioning meant we had visas — good for 30 days — and health certificates that qualified us for hospital treatment had any of us experienced a medical emergency. (Fortunately, we all stayed healthy.)
The organized tour consisted of 19 people, including 10 in our immediate group and nine other Americans from various places. The tour took us to Cienfuegos and Trinidad in southwestern Cuba (see map), as well as Havana. At the end of the tour, four of us — Patty and I and a good friend of ours and her sister — stayed on for two more days to explore Havana on our own. The sisters are conversant in Spanish, which helped immensely.
By category, and with accompanying photos, here are some of the highlights of our trip…
The Car is King
Everyone has heard, of course, how the Cubans are able to keep their old, mostly American-made cars chugging along. Some have been restored and are in excellent condition, but many are rattletraps that are nursed along through ingenuity and jerry-rigged equipment. Car ownership bestows status in Cuba. That’s because they are big revenue producers. In addition to official state-operated cab services and private taxis, some car owners use their vehicles as informal, communal taxis, known as almendrones. Standing curbside with hands extended, people flag down these vehicles, quickly discuss destinations and rates and either jump in or send the driver on his way. (I saw very few women drivers.) Often, several people going to different places ride in the same vehicle…It’s a cheap and efficient way to go, and we never worried about our safety. For the first few days, we took private taxis, but on our last full day, Sunday, we twice flagged down almendrones, getting cheap rides and cheap thrills.
People who give rides — whether in official taxis, tourist taxis or almendrones — earn much more money than the average, government-paid Cuban worker, including doctors. Other high earners are those in the hospitality industry, like musicians, waiters, bellmen and tour guides — basically anyone who works for tips. From the looks of things, even the banos attendants, who are just about everywhere, take in more money than doctors, who reportedly make about $50 a month. (They’re also leaving Cuba, understandably, in droves.)
There are two types of currency in Cuba: the one the residents use, the national peso, and the one that tourists use — the Cuban Convertible peso, C.U.C., phonetically referred to as “kooks.” The ratio is about 25 national pesos to one kook.
And while the kook is essentially the equivalent of the U.S. dollar, Americans get outrageously hosed when exchanging dollars for kooks. Right off the top, the government takes a 10 percent surcharge, compliments of Raul and Fidel, I’m sure. Then there’s an exchange fee of three to four percent, which means every kook is actually worth about 86 or 87 cents.
The best way to go, like I did, is to exchange dollars for Euros before leaving the States and then exchange the Euros for kooks in Cuba. Euros and other foreign currency are not subject to the surcharge, so you’re gaining 10 cents on every dollar.
Accommodations and (in)conveniences
If you let TripAdvisor hotel reviews be your guide, you’d never go to Cuba. That’s because the hotels are government owned and not up to American standards. The beds are narrow, so make sure you get a room with two beds, and the plumbing is unreliable. For example, the toilet paper doesn’t go in the toilets but in trash receptacles next to them. There are no wash cloths, either, so bring your own, if you absolutely need them. (At one point, I converted my eyeglass-cleaning rag into a wash cloth.)
It’s amazing, though, how fast you adjust to the conditions if you just relax, focus on having fun and making do with what you’ve got.
Oh, and because Cuba has a monumental trash problem (no regular pickup, as far as I could tell), the banos in restaurants and bars are not equipped with paper towels or hand towels, and most of the automatic dryers don’t work. Usually, you find yourself shaking off your hands and letting evaporation do the job. In many cases, hand soap is not available, either…But, like I said, you adjust.
Food and Drink
I had my fill of black beans and rice by Day 3. I like black beans and rice, but after two or three consecutive lunches and dinners featuring them, I swore off. I also got tired of the main meat dishes — pork, beef, chicken and lamb. Last Sunday, a driver we had hired for several hours took us to an Italian restaurant where the pizza ranked right up there with Minsky’s. A day earlier, we found — thanks to a recent New York Times travel story — a restaurant that had American-style food, including hamburgers. Although it didn’t particularly look like American hamburger — it was cured, we believed — it was close enough for satisfaction…And by the way, I really liked the Cuban Kola (in photo below); it rivals Coke and Pepsi, in my opinion.
Dancing and Entertainment
On one of our first nights in Havana, we attended a cabaret-type show at the Hotel Nacional, the most prominent building along the sea front. I wasn’t expecting much from the show, but it turned out to be thoroughly entertaining. For me, the highlight was a conga-drum player who won the crowd over as much with his radiant smile and crowd interaction as with his lightning-fast tapping and slapping on the drums.
…Salsa dancing in Cuba is something to behold. Last Sunday, we went to one of two Casa de la Musica establishments in Havana. About 45 minutes before a live band performed, people began dancing to loud, thumping recorded music…I don’t know how these women do it — whether they learn it from formal instruction or it’s in the genes — but they way many of them swish their torsos and roll their hips is spell binding. Many men are great dancers, too; their moves are just more subtle.
I could write a lot more and show you many more photos, but even electronic space should not be abused. So, I leave you with this…If you haven’t been to Cuba, try to go. And try to go soon. With American dollars and tourists pouring into the country, it’s going to change. It’s hard to say how long this lost-in-time country will boast the eclectic, authentic flavor it has right now. Maybe five years, maybe 10, maybe more. But the influx of money is bound to bring significant change. While the future is uncertain, for now all is Muy Bien!