Introduction to Cuba
Visiting Cuba is unlike visiting almost anywhere else in the world. Every place is unique of course, but Cuba is, by its very nature and history more unique than most. Cuba, which has been isolated from its giant neighbor to the north for over 50 years is impoverished and in many ways remains stuck in the past. This painful economic isolation is evident in every day life and in everything about your visit here. From the long lines at the airport, to the striking poverty, the shortage of goods and even general lack of internet access. Still, for a westerner, plenty of things exist to soften the blow and so your trip can actually be on the glamorous side, with (almost) English speaking waiters, cool air conditioned rooms and no waiting lines for exchange money. You just have to know, as many Cubans have learned, how to work the system.
Money in Cuba
There are two local currencies in Cuba, the only country in the world with this system. First currency is is the CUC and the second is the CUP. CUC is exchanged at the rate of 1 to 1 with the dollar, and it’s the currency that is supposed to be used by foreigners. CUP is the local currency to be used by locals and the exchange rates are 25 CUP to 1 CUC. I read a while ago that foreigners aren’t supposed to have CUP but nobody seemed to care if you do. CUP are useful for local places that don’t cater to tourists, CUC is helpful everywhere else.
Just to make things a little more complicated, everywhere in Cuba, you will be asked to pay a 10% tax when exchanging dollars to CUC. This hits you pretty hard upon entry so many of my friends suggested I exchange dollars for euros in NYC. I did bring emergency dollars with me to Cuba, But about 550 euros was more than enough for me for a week. However, keep in mind that I tend to stay in hostels and that costs a fraction of what a hotel room costs. Because of the trade embargo nobody will accept American credit cards, and you can not use an ATM machine. So bring extra cash with you, just in case.
When I arrived at the airport I followed advice my friends gave me, and attempted to exchange all the money I had from Euros into local currency at the government exchange place in the airport. To get here, from arrivals proceed straight upstairs which will take you to departures and money exchange. But after waiting in line for about 1 hour, I was told (only as I approached the window) that they were running out of money and so can only exchange about 50 euros. This gave me instant flashbacks to the Soviet Union when you would wait in line for hours only to find out they ran out of the very thing you needed. Undeterred, with my slightly more than 50 CUC (.88 euro buys you 1 cuc) in hand I headed out to a cab. The cab into the city should cost you 20 to 25 cuc. Negotiate the ride before getting into a car, and don’t let the driver turn on the meter. I just put the number into my phone calculator and show it to my driver together with the address. You don’t even need any Spanish for that, which is great for me as I have practically none to speak of.
The hostel I stayed in suggested I walk to Western Union to exchange the rest of my cash. Upon arriving to the local branch, it became fairly apparent I was in for about a 2 hour wait, in the blazing sun. Instead, I walked into a high end hotel in the main square and walked right up to a desk. The trick with hotels is that if you look like you belong there nobody will ever suspect you are not staying there. Most hotels only want to exchange money for their guests, although there are rarely formal policies on this topic. In any case, I got the rest of my money exchanged within 4 minutes at a rate that was very similar to that of Western Union. I even picked up a couple of internet cards which normally cost 3 cuc at the park, for 2 cuc at the hotel.
Internet in Cuba
Ah internet. This, for me personally, was probably the most frustrating part of my trip and also, I imagine most necessary. I am an electronics addict. In fact as I am writing this I am relaxing on a beautiful shaded patio in Havana’s main square, my laptop planted firmly in front of me, with my camera and my entirely useless phone just a few inches away. I am the most electronics addicted person you will find and I like to wake up at 6 am just so I can spend the next hour scrolling on my phone before I get started with my day. Since I didn’t do much research on this trip, opting instead to go in “fresh” so as to experience things others may not have written about, I spend about one hour, while waiting at customs, furiously refreshing my internet connection or lack thereof. My reliable google phone which seems to work almost anywhere else in the world was not coming on line for some reason. There was no wifi. There was no internet. There was no connection. NONE. For the first time in months, I was, it seemed, disconnected. It’s an odd feeling when you know you are truly unreachable. For someone who thrives on technology and connectivity a scary one too. In my optimism I was hoping to post to my Instagram stories from Cuba. HA.
I would later learn how to get (a little) connection and how little there really was on this isolated island.
Havana – Days 1 to 3
Cuba, Day 1
After checking in to my hostel, a place I thought looked questionable initially but later came to find out was almost glamorous compared to where my fellow travelers were staying (more on this later), I walked out determined to find internet. I even brought my laptop thinking I could work off it. My hostel owner directed me to a park in the middle of the city. There, he said, you will see everyone on their phones. You can buy a card and log on. I found the park fairly easily (my hostel is located very near center city) and got quickly approached by a young man trying to sell me a card for internet access. Rule number one of traveling – never buy anything from someone who approaches you before figuring out your other options. Instead I came up to two friendly looking women sitting on the bench (women are usually a safer bet for other women) who did not look like they were there to sell anything. I pointed to my phone and said internet. They pointed back to a group of young men. I asked them how much (quanta costa), and they told me 3 cuc. Armed with that information I handed a 3 cuc note to a man. Later I would find another man who asked me for 8 cuc for the same card. Always check on prices with a local before buying anything.
I spend about 20 minutes trying to log in with my newly purchased card. Eventually it occurred to me that I wasn’t doing anything wrong but the tiny network, probably slightly better than dialup was completely overwhelmed by the hundred or so users attempting to log on to it. I never did get a connection in this park, but I made my way into the most expensive hotel I could find, purchase a drink and there after about 10 minutes I was able to finally log on to communicate with my family and employees. Suffice it to say that Havana is not a place you come to if you have to work while you travel. I did eventually come across some decent internet. Its located in a Central Havana Hotel, Hotel Habaguanex. To get to the good internet, walk inside the hotel towards the bathrooms. There you will find a large, airy lounge with impossibly high ceilings. This lounge has the best internet access I have found in Havana. You must purchase something small in order to sit and use the (paid) internet access.
Cuba, Day 2
The next morning I made my way into Central Square, the center of the city although not the heart of its tourist district (that honor probably goes to Old Town). Central square is surrounded by beautifully maintained older hotels, each one hosting diners in covered outside patios. Here I changed my money in a hotel and had some very good coffee and questionable pastry. When getting into a new city, especially while traveling without a plan as I was in Cuba, its often very helpful to take a double decker bus tour to orientate yourself. Although I usually roll my eyes when I see one in New York, they are useful, and a great way to figure out where you want to go and what you want to do while on location. I did not think Havana had one, but as I was having coffee one pulled up right in front of me. Turns out I was sitting right at the bus stop of Habana Bus Tours without realizing it. You can locate this stop right where all the classic cars line up in the square, on the side of the square opposite to the side that leads to old town.
The double decker bus here doesn’t have a fabulous tour guide, unlike most everywhere in the world. The bus ride was mostly silent, but the tour guide did make a couple of comments in Spanish and even a few in English (I am sure for my benefit only, as I was the only non-Spanish speaker on the bus). Still, it was fabulous to see the city from high up, to orientate and to note a few landmarks I wanted to visit. The fort certainly caught my eye, as did the long promenade along the water.
After the bus tour I was ready for lunch and while on the bus I noted a restaurant I wanted to visit. Called Sloppy Joe’s Bar it’s just a bit off main square, and is the original birthplace of the sloppy joe (had no idea this delicious and perfectly messy cuisine was invented in Havana). I had vaguely heard of this place among traveler conversation a few years ago and I remember hearing that the service is awful but the food is worth it. Having a laptop and a professional camera must have helped a bit, I can honestly say my service was outstanding. As I looked around my fellow travelers at the bar did get much slower service, but I have to say this food would definitely have been worth the wait. I tried the local mojito (after visiting Cuba I can absolutely declare nobody else in the world knows how to make a proper mojito) and a sloppy joe sandwich that cost 6 cuc. Although not normally a fan of sloppy joes which to me are the perfect lazy food for when you have to feed your starving kids while all you want to do is sleep in a corner, these were AMAZING.
Outstanding, delicious and perfect I devoured every bite. This is a must must for lunch. And the decidedly communist waiter service just makes the experience that much more fun.
Cuba is safe but be careful
Cuba is (justly) considered one of the safest countries in the world. The rate of violent crimes, especially against visitors is very low here, and you can safely walk through almost any neighborhood at night if you wish, which is not something that can be said for all Latin American countries. However, I have to say this. I have NEVER encountered so much small petty attempts at scams as I have in Cuba. Everyone wants to take advantage of you. When I would ask to take a picture of a few street workers they would first agree and then demand I pay them for the picture. When I was in a very high end restaurant there was a perfectly sweet old man sitting next to the bathrooms who demanded a dollar when I left the bathroom. When I tried to buy an internet card the man demanded 8 dollars before I showed him 3, which was the fair price. Little scam artists are everywhere – they will take advantage of you while you try to take a cab (local drivers will give you an unrequested tour of Havana if you allow them to turn on the meter). I don’t have problem with giving money and I do understand these people are impoverished, but I don’t like to be taken advantage of.
The way I usually tend to balance my desire to give back to the locals while not being taken advantage of is by patronizing as many local vendors as possible and being vaguely aware of how much I should be charged in advance, and then paying a little extra. For instance when a lovely old gentleman offered me a hat for 4 cuc I knew it was a fair price as those hats range from 3 to 5, so I took one without bargaining, and gave him 5 cuc instead. When I took the bicycle cabs, which is very hard labor I would tip them several cuc in addition to the 2 or 3 they requested for the ride. In general in Cuba, a 10% tip is considered generous and is appreciated.
I understand the frustration of these people. They live next to what is undisputedly the wealthiest country in the world, and they have to wait in line for hours to get something as simple as body lotion. I get it. We, the people of America don’t make policy. Neither do the people of Cuba. Many of these decisions are made at the highest branches of government, and we have limited say in them. They have none. But I also don’t like for people to take advantage of me, so I will often opt out of these transactions. Never feel guilty about saying no when you feel you are being taken advantage of.
Speaking of people, there is still technically an embargo on the country of Cuba. There is several ways to travel here, people to people travel being the most popular. Although I am traveling on journalism visa I did get some information for people to people travel, which will hopefully be helpful to you.
Traveling to Cuba for Americans.
If you can call the history of Cuba complex, that would be a definite understatement for the relationship between Cuba and America. Although I wasn’t born in America even I have heard of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis and of course the embargo. I don’t claim to be a legal expert, and I most certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the complex relationship between Cuba and America. But here is what I do know. After years of complex relations for American travelers who wanted to visit Cuba, the requirements for such visits were loosened by the last administration and again tightened by the current one. As I bought my ticket before the new restrictions were announced I fall under the loosened laws. I am traveling on a journalism visa as I am writing about and photographing Cuba, but majority of Americans I met are traveling under a “people to people” visa. Tourist travel to Cuba is still not permitted. Therefore you must travel under one of permitted categories, as listed below:
(source, US State Department): family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
Like I said most people travel on a people to people visa. This is basically a cultural exchange program (which for some reason only goes one way as I am not aware of any Cubans traveling on a cultural visa to the States). To do so under the law you must have a detailed itinerary (by the hour) where you plan on visiting, what you plan on doing and that itinerary, needless to say must be heavily culture focused. I don’t know much else about this visa except that its violation is punishable by $10,000 or 10 years in jail or both. To my knowledge nobody has ever been persecuted under this law.
For myself traveling on a journalism visa I am spending a large portion of my time writing and photographing Cuba, which is what I would be doing anyway during my travels. I tend to spend my mornings visiting new locations and afternoons holed up in one of many restaurants enjoying Pellegrino or mojito and writing and editing pictures. I do have to say with no distractions of the internet this place is very conducive to writing and I find articles almost pouring out of me. Cuba may be the last writer’s paradise.
On accommodations in Cuba
While traveling to Cuba you have several choices for accommodations, I will start with my favorite and general tips for staying in hostels and move on to your other options.
As you may know if you have followed me a while, I rarely stay in hotels preferring to stay in hostels instead. Don’t get me wrong. I do love a luxurious hotel room, friendly concierge and delicious room service as much as the next girl. But when you travel as much as I do, it often makes sense financially to opt for quick and easy hostel rooms instead. I can sleep almost anywhere and I prefer to take the money I saved on my nightly stay towards delicious high end food in the local I am traveling in.
Besides being a huge money saver, one big advantage of staying in hostels is that you can be as alone or with as much company as you want. There are always friends to be made in a hostel, but you can chose to keep to yourself instead if the mood strikes you. The best hostels often offer walking tours and bar hops which can facilitate in making friends. I have gone both ways and made life long friends in some hostels while choosing to keep to myself in others. Regardless you never feel particularly lonely in a hostel which may be a nice thing while traveling alone.
To choose a hostel follow my few simple rules. First, never save money on a hostel. You want to stay in the most expensive hostel the city has to offer. Always chose the hostel as close to the center as possible (read the reviews to determine how far you are and hostels.com will show you distance to city center). The most expensive hostel in the city will usually have the best facilities. Expect facilities to vary widely. Some hostels in Western Europe are almost luxurious with high end electronic bracelet activated locks and security systems, brand new mattresses and fantastic hang out lounges complete with modern sound systems. Some, like the one I am staying in Cuba are little more than a glorified apartment converted for community living. Standards vary by country, but by always choosing the best you are at least likely to have decent beds, clean showers and central location. Everything else is variable.
I stayed in a hostel that came as one of the best reviewed on hostels.com in Cuba. It’s located 4 blocks from Central Square in an apartment building, which was not easy to get into initially. It does have, a blissfully fully functioning air conditioning system, and is clean with decent showers (Hostal Mendoza, Campanario #315, Entre Neptuno y San Miguel apto 43, Havana, Cuba, Tel:+53 524 99606 email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Another hostel I came on while wondering in the city is Hostal Del Angel. It looked like a nice place although I didn’t go get to go in was very centrally located. That one must be booked direct, it looked more high end (and probably more expensive) than the one I was staying in.
Your other option for staying in Cuba is to stay in a private home. Although you might be used to staying in Airbnb I would strongly urge you to avoid that option in Cuba. Because America doesn’t have formal relations with the country, Airbnb owners have trouble getting paid by Airbnb. They have to wait long times for the payment which is heavily taxed as well. A better and more affordable option is to contact one of dozens of local websites (link at the bottom of this post) that can put you in touch with a local casa owner. You will simply pay the owner upon check in.
Your third option is a hotel. If you do decide to go with a hotel, the best ones can run hundreds of dollars per night and since American credit cards or ATM cards can not be used here you must make sure you bring enough in cash. This is a lovely option if you can afford one of the most famous Havana hotels. Some of the best hotels in Havana are Hoteles Habaguanex located at Central Park (the city’s central square). In old town, Hotel Florida and Ambos Mundos look beautiful. The second hotel is where Hemingway spend 10 of the most productive years of his life. These are centrally located high end hotels perfect for a couple or family getaway looking to splurge.
If you are looking for a splurge hotel you can chose to stay in Central Square, with the classic cars outside your windows or old town, which is the real heart of the tourist district. Old town has a far more touristy feel and virtually no cars. Central Square is large and beautiful and the enormous shaded patios in the hotels in Central Square were my favorite place to hang out. Much of old town is lovingly restored and jam packed with museums and attractions. Tiny restaurants line its narrow streets and there are four big squares in old town to visit.
Local Casa Websites:
http://www.casasdecuba-en.net/ ** (Analay Fernandez) **
Religion in Cuba
Although Cuba is considered a communist country, and this system of government does not technically co-exist with religion, the Cuban people have found a precarious balance that allows for both communism and religious beliefs. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union I too had witnessed the co-existence of the two systems in the late 80s in Russia, where orthodox Christianity was not encouraged yet most people practiced it. In Cuba a unique blend of Catholicism and African traditional religious practices is accepted as majority religion. This is common of many of the Caribbean countries where slaves were forced to convert from the beliefs of their families, yet they held on tight to their ancestral gods, often altering the very nature of Christianity and blending seamlessly the two very different practices. There are quite a few beautiful churches through Havana, as a well as a beautiful mosque. According to one local, in many of these churches symbols of African faith are hidden behind catholic icons, a brilliant solution by the slaves. They could be seen to worship as they were required to, while secretly worshiping as their heart desired. Although directly after the revolution the new government did whatever it could to stop all religious practices this policy only lasted a few years and the government adopted to the people’s desire for religion.
Cuba, Day 3
I am traveling blind to Cuba, with no knowledge of what I will do. All I know is that I have a place booked to 7 days, I should have enough money for the duration of my stay and what time my return flight is. Traveling this way was a conscious decision, as I have chosen to walk into the culture fresh, with no preconceived notions of the city, country or its people and hoping to see sides that may not be accessible to those who have a plan. This type of trip is an unusual adventure but it helps that I am an experienced traveler with a sixth sense for what’s interesting and unusual. It also helps that I am never shy about asking for help or directions. As I was walking to where I intended to get breakfast on the morning of my third day, I came past a group of foreigners with a gentleman holding an umbrella that said Free Walking Tour Havana. (I would later learn that this walking tour is in English and in Spanish, available twice a day at 9:30 am and 4 pm and always meets at the same spot – In front of Bule Bar 66, just off main square. The tour is free, lasts almost 3 hours, and most of us chose to tip our wonderful guide 10 cuc at the end.)
I had not had a chance to visit old town yet, frankly I had not even known it existed until one of my hostel mates told me about it the night before. This seemed the perfect opportunity to get to know this part of town and I gladly joined the tour. I highly recommend it as a way to get acquainted with old town, the same as the double decker bus is a great way to get acquainted with the newer portions of Havana.
Old town is a collection of narrow ancient streets, many at the center of the old town are brilliantly restored. It is mostly closed to auto traffic and its tiny avenues are lined with restaurants, more than enough places to enjoy lunch, dinner or a cup of coffee. There are a couple of places in old town which host roof top bars where the views of the city at sunset are second to none. Old town hosts four grand squares, all of them worth a visit. I spend the rest of my day exploring old town with no plan or gps on my phone (if you prefer to have a little more sense of where you are going, maps.me app was used by many of my fellow travelers. It can be downloaded to be used without cell connection using only your gps signal.) Alternatively a map can be purchased in most stores for 2 cuc.
One of the great joys of visiting Havana is enjoying its many restaurants with no interruptions from technology. I loved getting a cold drink in the shade and watching life pass me by. Its an odd feeling enjoying a drink without a cell phone attached to my other hand, but after a day or two a welcome one. As odd as it feels to be completely disconnected from the outside world there is charm in it too, to watch kids play soccer in the park instead of Nintendo. I must admit I miss the time when interacting with an old friend required real effort and to meet people you had no choice but to get to know them. Still, modern technology is coming to Havana to and to all of Cuba soon. There are already hot spots all through the city, something that did not exist just a few years ago. With time more of them will appear and you may find people walking and texting or Facebooking each other instead of hanging out together in front of a home. Havana is not quite there yet, and so you’ll rarely see anyone carrying their phone in hand or resting their phone on a table while they eat.
I spend time wondering that Havana must be the second least connected major metropolis in the world, second only to Pyongyang, North Korea.
Technology is funny. We may choose to use it initially, but soon enough, it will begin to appear in our day to day life unrequested, almost unwelcome. I sometimes wonder where it stops, and if technological progress will make our culture completely unrecognizable in only a few more years. For now, this is Havanna, 2017. My table is a painted blue wood, my location is a grand old hotel in Central Park, my drink is a local rum and coke, my view is classic American cars, and not a single person on the street (with the ironic exception of me, as I am typing on my computer) has any tech in hand.
Havana, July 5, 2017