The energy I felt within 24 hours of arriving in Havana was overwhelming, exhilarating, and surprisingly enlightening. In Cuba, you’re truly thrown back into the past. You’re given a glimpse of what life may have been like when technology and branding didn’t rule our lives. When mobile phones weren’t constantly occupying our right hand and our line of vision while we walked on the street, when computers stayed fixed in a household’s “computer room.” When advertisements were saved only for billboards and television commercials, and weren’t an ever-present force. In Havana, people walk on the streets and know one another. Whether they may be friends, neighbors, or enemies, they know each other business; they know what happens on their streets. People are awake, alert, and living. They stop and speak to one another, really look the other in the other’s eyes, and have a conversation. There are few mobile phones around to disturb their conversations, no Instagram push notification or Facebook comment they must attend to right away. The locals are having real conversation about the day-to-day in their lives, or the gossip heard the other day about their elusive neighbor. Having that escape from being online and from being connected to the world actually brings you even closer to your own city. And as a tourist, I was brought into the Cubans’ world, whether they wished it or not, and I felt a closeness with the country’s energy that I hadn’t felt in the same way in any other place I had visited before on my travels. And so, this post is special to me in that as I describe my much too short eleven day sojourn there, I recall how the country made me feel, and how I truly fell in love with Cuba as I never thought I would.
I have to admit I was incredibly nervous when I landed at José Martí International Airport. Thankfully by this point I was not backpacking solo; I was told by other backpackers that it was not recommended to travel alone, and as things always seem to work out in the way they should, I found myself traveling with my old companion, the one from my days in Peru. But I was still anxious about what I was going to be met with in Cuba. I was prepared for the worst: inability to tap into cash when needed, exchanging money at alarmingly high rates, excessive cat-calling, long lines for just about everything, scammers, terrible food and borderline starvation for lack thereof, being lost without internet or ways to obtain tourist information, poor accommodations and unfriendly hosts, and numerous other bits and pieces that travelers had warned me about. All the people I had met either hated Cuba, or loved it but with a little asterisk, a sort of aside that meant it was a difficult kind of love, a tug of the heart, an obstacle that they overcame and in the end felt good about. My heart was beating out of my chest, and I was visibly nervous and scatter brained when we walked through to immigration and customs. I was sure that we would have issues at immigration, despite the fact that I was using my Brazilian passport. But, we passed through quite easily. We arrived at night, and in the typical Cuban way we didn’t book any accommodation – we only had the card of a casa particular that a backpacker recommended to me. We took a taxi to old Havana, where we found the casa. Old Havana’s buildings are sadly falling apart, but retain their charm from the prosperous years. But this casa was a little gem in the city. More about our host in Havana a little later.
Havana was by far one of the most fascinating capital cities I have visited. The extremes of the rich and the poor, of the locals and tourists, are immense. Their dual currency, the CUC (foreign Cuban Convertible Pesos currency) and CUP (local Cuban pesos), heightened this dichotomy. The CUC, although used for foreigners, is also used by locals for specific purchases, such as bottled water, household furnishings, and real estate. In the upscale residential neighborhoods of Havana such as in Vedado, you can go to a bar and pay twelve dollars for a cocktail. At El Floridita in Old Havana, world famous for their daiquiris and catered exclusively to tourists, you’ll be short six dollars for the rum and lime juice concoction. El Floridita also highlights Cubans’ obsession with Ernest Hemingway, the writer who spent a great deal of time in the country. Various places claim to have hosted Hemingway at some point during his stay in Cuba, including El Floridita, where he spent time writing and drinking, as he always did in the likes of New York and Paris. Hemingway also visited the bar called La Bodeguita del Medio, which lays claim to being the birthplace of the Mojito. Salvador Allende, Pablo Naruda, and other personalities have been known to patronize this bar as well.
Visiting the famous La Coppelia ice cream parlor was a sad and eye-opening experience for me. Local Cubans can pay an astoundingly low one penny per scoop of ice cream, but at the cost of waiting over 2 hours in line to be able to do so. As we walked towards the shop and saw the line, my heart sank. I was afraid I would never try the ice cream as I wouldn’t want to wait on the line. However, as we neared, we were called after by employees, asking if we spoke English, and then waved over to a nearby area. We pass the line and the main entrance, walk up the side stairs, and enter a nondescript door. Inside is an air-conditioned, empty ice cream parlor with old fashioned photos and three employees waiting to serve us. We sat down, ordered, and and promptly served two scoops of strawberry and vanilla ice cream. I was uncomfortable and frustrated by the outright exclusivity of it all, yet satisfied by the delicious flavors. We left after twenty minutes, and I felt guilty for passing the locals in line, eyeing us knowing that we had just finished having our share of the dessert so loved by Cubans. And, how much did this special VIP treatment cost us? The ice cream cost two dollars and fifty cents per person.
Transportation is another divider amongst the rich and the poor. A taxi ride from Old Havana to the upscale town of Vedado cost about ten dollars, whether or not you take an old car or a regular yellow taxi. A ride in an old car that’s been exquisitely and expensively kept will cost about thirty dollars for a day ride through town. The quality of the highways are very high, but this is because there are so few cars on them. It is expensive to travel from city to city. A driver we met had never been to Cienfuegos, four hours from his hometown of Havana. Our “Mama,” our host in Havana, was from Pinar del Rio, but hadn’t visited her hometown in years, even though it is only three and a half hours away from Havana. And leaving Cuba for vacation is out of the question except for the ultra-rich. In order to get a visa to visit another country, Cubans must show sufficient funds, which they almost never have. We learned that a lot of Cubans have family in the United States, and some in parts of Europe. It is very difficult to obtain a visa for them to visit their family, even if the family promises to pay for their airfare and to support them financially during their stay. Especially owning a car in Cuba is a costly luxury. Not only is the price of gasoline high (diesel being less expensive means that most cars’ engines are switched out to accept diesel fuel), but the prices of cars are disproportionately high to their value elsewhere in the world. For example, we rode in a taxi driver’s used Peugeot from the year 2000 and with over 500,000 kilometers on the odometer, which he told us was worth about 15,000 dollars. In the United States this same car wouldn’t cost more than one thousand dollars.
A ride around Havana is a beautiful thing to do, especially along the Malecon at night, where you’ll whizz by hundreds of people hanging out on the esplanade, looking to the sea. Havana’s crazy nightlife starts and ends here, with a few drinks along the boardwalk at all hours of the night and early morning. Some nightlife options for tourists and upper class Cubans include a well-known Thursday salsa dancing night at Jardines del 1830 and grabbing drinks and looking at new art exhibitions at the Art Factory in Vedado. You’ll find both locals and tourists at both these places, but there are an endless amount of options that are exclusive to tourists merely based on the price of entry and cost of drinks.
Speaking of our “Mama,” she was our warm and delightful host at the casa particular we stayed in, in Havana. It was with her that we learned about her life as a Cuban and her thoughts on the visible changes happening in her country. It was with her that we had a place to sleep, food to eat, laughs, and where I realized that I was already in love with her city, with the wild west of Havana. She is a nurse, working six days a week from 7am to 6pm each day. She doesn’t earn much, but is content with her life. She earns well for she uses her home as supplemental income. She is not happy with how Cuba has made things difficult for her, such as seeing and learning more of the world, but she is hopeful for change. She also feels that having the country open to the United States will be better for business overall, and she welcomes it. I don’t think she realizes, as none of us really do, to what extent having open doors to Americans will change Cuban culture and lifestyle. The brand-less, unwired, time-warp of a city won’t stay that way for very long.
A casa particular is truly the only way to properly get to know Cuba. A hotel, although more comfortable, is not only much more expensive but it is not the honest way to meet locals and to see how they live. It’s also a new way to support local businesses and individual families. A casa costs between fifteen and twenty-five dollars per night in Cuba, some including breakfast. Anyone with an officially registered casa has a special symbol on their door, and they must report to the government their monthly earnings, paying a tax to them regardless of whether they had any guests or not that month. And, local food is best found at casas, where the women cook the traditional dishes made legend in other cities where Cuban restaurants are plenty, such as in New York. You won’t get the lobster or the steak, which are illegal to purchase by residents (although you can buy lobster at any upscale restaurant, they just won’t list it on the menu), but you will try their vegetables, rice, pork and chicken, and fruit. You can even visit any casa that you’re not staying in and have dinner – most families would be happy to prepare food for you, for around five to ten dollars. Almost every home has multiple rocking chairs, whether in people’s living rooms on their front porches.
I am sure you are as shocked as I am to read this – it is true that the average wage the Cuban government gives to each person, to account for food and shelter and water for the month, is fifteen dollars. That’s it. To give some perspective on what the costs are for Cubans, equivalent in CUP, food from a sidewalk window shop would be one dollar for a ham and cheese sandwich, bananas from the local market cost four cents, one pound of a pork’s leg is less than two dollars, electricity/utilities about five dollars per month, ice cream is about fifteen cents per scoop, bread was ten cents, the National Granma newspaper costs about two and a half cents. I saw a beautiful modern dance performance at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, the Havana Grand Theater. Here, a ticket for a local is one dollar for any seat. As a tourist, I paid thirty dollars.
These staggering differences prices are quite normal – entries to museums, theaters, transportation, market prices, and any attractions are exponentially higher for tourists. Although some necessities are still too expensive for locals, as is evident by a trip to a supermarket. The water in Cuba is very poor – it is actually poisonous. Cubans are forced to drink bottled water, and can only purchase this in the tourist current, the CUC. It costs about one dollar fifty for a bottle of water. Milk is about two dollars, household items like lamps and plastic storage containers can cost up to fifteen dollars, a lock is five dollars, a lamp between twenty and thirty dollars, a screwdriver three dollars, Butter (one small square costs ten cents) and olives (a small pack costs seventy-five cents) are among the more scarce items, seen behind a glass container at the supermarket, sharing the same space as alcohol and cigarettes. Toilet paper and napkins are also highly priced. There are little items in terms of brand named cookies, snacks, and the like – rather, a trip to the ice cream shop is what satisfies the very sweet-toothed Cuban. Cubans love sugar. Everything they consume as loads of sugar in it – coffee, fruit juice, ice cream, and the two drinks Cuba is known for: daquiris and mojitos. Havana Club rum was seven dollars a liter, beer between one and a half and three dollars a bottle. Cuban cigars range from one dollar sixty to nine dollars per cigar, depending on the quality.
Communication is quite costly too, for both locals and tourists. It’s a humorous timewarp with all things “internet.” In order to access the internet, you must go to a hotel or an ETECSA shop and purchase a card with a unique number. This costs about two to three dollars per hour. You then log in to the wifi and enter the number – you can use the one hour as many times as you want, just having to log out to stop the timer. However, wifi only exists in public parks and squares; you’ll notice if a park has wifi when you see tourists crowded together looking down at their phones, or Cubans in business suits on their laptops writing emails.
Oh, a post about Cuba isn’t complete without a brief mention of their cigars! Truly, even as non-cigar smoker, trying the various types of cigars was a pleasure. Cohiba cigars were without a doubt the highest quality, and they’re a relatively inexpensive and fun gift to bring back home. The United States now allows up to 100 dollars worth of tobacco and alcohol from Cuba to be brought into the country.
You probably haven’t heard of José Martí. The airport is named after him, there are museums in old Havana dedicated to his life and place of his birth, his face is on the local Cuban currency, and he is visible in almost every small town in some form, whether it be a statue in the main square or on propaganda posters. He is quite an important figure for the Cuban people. He was a poet who fought and died for his country during the Cuban War of Independence from Spain in 1895. Fidel Castro has long since used him as a symbol for Cubans, interestingly adding his image and words in almost every town in the country, rather than having his own face and slogans. And the subliminal propaganda works; by the time I had left Cuba I was not only convinced that José Martí was pivotal in the war, even though he died on his first day in battle, but I was also strangely reminded of Fidel Castro’s importance and reign during the 20th century, and his longstanding stronghold over every single element of the Cuban people’s lives. In Havana, there is a statue of José Martí shielding a baby in his arms and pointing a finger directly across a square. This building, a few meters away, happens to be the United States Embassy (what used to be the US Special Interests building has recently re-opened as the Embassy, since the United States and Cuba began negotiations again). What an incredible (and quite hilarious) message Castro has given to Cubans. Despite an Embassy being there, José Martí, the symbol of fighting for Cuba, will shield the coming generations from the wrath of the American influence.
There was so much more to Cuba than Havana or, as many Canadians may be familiar with, the pristine beaches and large all-inclusive resorts of Varadero. We didn’t even visit Varadero; instead, my friend and I decided to venture around the west side of the island. First, we made our way to Trinidad, the colorful colonial town founded in 1514. My fascination with the old cars continued as I frantically snapped photos of the cars against the colored walls. In Trinidad we stayed in an entirely different sort of casa particular, a family with a larger home and multiple bedroom/bath ensuites, and a rooftop overlooking the town. A larger casa, a more elaborate breakfast, with fresh guava juice, mangos and pineapple, eggs, bread, butter, coffee, cheese, and guava sweets, but also a more reserved family, one that wasn’t excited to talk about their lives or learn about ours. Trinidad was certainly a less happy place than Havana, and we found that although most of their business is derived from Tourism, they don’t welcome it the way they do in Havana. And they’re not as talkative – in Havana we were met with so many people who came up to speak with us, and not for any reason other than to welcome us to their city, and to offer advice on areas to see and educate us on Cuban culture.
Our next stop was Viñales, home to tobacco farms, caves, and mountains lining the Viñales Valley, located in the north western part of the country. The areas of Cuba I had visited thus far were flat, connected by a single highway road, noticeably desolate as Cubans lack the means to leave their towns. The only cars visible were taxis, and the roads were mostly busy with tourist busses by the same company called Viazul. Viñales itself is a small, largely touristic town. The closest major city is about thirty minutes away, Pinar del Rio. We rented a motorbike to explore the surrounding countryside and to take in the viewpoints. We also rode to the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, the largest cave in Cuba and the second largest in Central America, and did a torchlight tour of the interior. We were surprised how few visitors there were to this cave, one that seemed to be far more interesting than the other nearby caves such as Cueva de la Piscina or Cueva del Indio. Having a motorbike allowed us to travel to farther distances without having to worry about booking tours; we also rode about two and a half hours to a Cayo Jutias, a secluded beach along the coast. We passed through small villages, each one melting into another as they had similar layouts, and all with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro posters and slogans, as well as José Martí statues protruding from the center squares.
Viñales has beautiful countryside and farmland, still tilled by ox and managed by horses. It’s a flashback to the past, to a country western movie where there is no rush for anything. There’s nowhere to be but right now, at the very moment, tilling the land. The people are friendlier than in Trinidad but still more reserved than in Havana. What stood out for me apart from the landscape was the food – I was blown away by the perception that you cannot eat well in Cuba. In fact, I had tried some lovely dinners in Viñales with seafood and fresh vegetables, two things I thought were scarce. I should note, however, that these two items may not be as easily accessible to locals, who may not afford it. I was eating at a delicious restaurant, and did occasionally go to restaurants during my stay in Cuba, but unfortunately the patrons were mostly tourists. The few Cubans I saw were in Havana, and they looked extremely well-off and fortunate to be able to dine at a restaurant. It hurt me to know that this food would never be eaten by a local Cuban. A typical dinner dish cost between eight and twelve dollars, which by New York standards is cheap. But for a Cuban, who makes the equivalent of fifteen dollars a month, this luxury outing would be impossible.
We spent our last two days back in Havana, and I had revisited what I loved about the city when I first arrived. I left the country with every intention of returning, more curious than ever before about the changes that await Cuba, and what the effects of American tourism will actually mean for its people. I realize that although my eyes were blinded by only what I as a tourist could see, I knew that the reality Cuban history and dictatorship still remains. As we went through immigration, side by side with some Cubans who clearly were leaving their country for the first time, I knew how fortunate I was to travel, to see the world. To leave the island I live in, the not so little island of Manhattan. I went through their duty free store to spend my remaining Cuban currency, and to my dismay I saw all the items that were missing in their stores all around their country: oreo cookies, chocolate bars, branded candy snacks, foreign spirits and whiskey. These goods were not even physically 30 kilometers away from Havana residents, and some people would never know they existed. And, even if the rich Cubans could afford it, they wouldn’t readily have access to these products unless they too have the same gift that so many of us have, the gift of mobility. The gift of leaving your home country to explore another. The ability to travel and bring back memories of a place, so strange.