With Koru safely parked with some of our new replacement items (computer, grill, kindles etc..) from the break-in thanks to superhero Cole who brought them for us from Colorado, we left Cancun bright and early in the morning for our 7am flight with much anticipation for the once untouchable Cuba. To the great unknown, a place paused in time, a chance for unexpected discovery.
Landing in Havana after a short 45 min flight, we quickly observed the lack of modern infrastructure. Customs was a breeze, and since few flights come to Havana compared to other large Capitols of the world, we proceeded to the single baggage carousel and grabbed our bags within minutes. The next step was to exchange our money. After reading that they charge a 10% fee to exchange the American dollar and hints from friends who have visited, we were happy we brought Euro’s that we exchanged before leaving on our adventure. The situation of Cuba’s financial system is extremely confusing and unique to anywhere in the world (that we know of).
The country uses two currencies, with claims of an eventual merging, both considered pesos with very large differences in value yet similar in appearance. The currency exchanged for foreigners and the wealthy is called pesos convertibles, also known as CUC (pronounced coo-cks) and follow the value of the American dollar 1:1. The other currency, known simply as pesos or national money is what the locals use, and have a 25:1 value to the CUC. We were immediately told to only use the CUC and to be wary of the national money. At the airport we thought this was unusual but went with it and paid for an overpriced taxi on our way to the heart of Old Havana, where we’d stay for two nights, three days.
View from the casa particular:
There are generally two options for tourist lodging in Cuba, international hotels or resorts (extremely expensive and somewhat unappealing) and Casa Particulars. The casas are local family homes that allow you to stay in a room with a bathroom while giving you the option to eat breakfast and dinner for an additional cost, all prepared by the family. Our friends Cole and Megan had made most of the arrangements via AirBnB prior to the trip, so our lodging was set and we were excited to see what the casas had to offer.
Arriving to our location after a wild cab ride whipping through the streets of Havana and being stopped by the police, we ascended many small flights of stairs on the interior of a 5 story building to the roof top where a few rooms resided. With a kitchen and outside terraces to hang out on, it dawned on us that this particular casa was not someones home, but rather more of a hostel with private rooms and a watchman at night to let people in at any time. We dropped our bags in our cute little rooms and proceeded to go on our first of many walks through Old Havana.
Having been in Mexico for over a month we’d gained confidence there, but our feelings of comfort were shattered by our first look at Havana. Never had we seen such dilapidation in large parts of the city that were once gorgeous buildings with intricate facades. However, the primary tourist squares and streets were well kept. We were at a loss of how to feel, our instincts told us we were in a dangerous location, but we quickly realized the opposite to be true. Cuba is one of the safest places we have ever experienced.
The people were everywhere and did not hesitate to stare at us with funny looks. They also greatly outnumber vehicles so it was easy to walk through the city. Although there are not many cars, the ones witnessed within minutes of our arrival would pull at the heartstrings of any old classic enthusiast. Everything from Chevrolet, Buick, Plymouth and Ford were well represented and evoked visions of the once roaring 50’s scene.
The revolution had basically eliminated the importation of American cars after 1959, and their fondness of the vehicles have enabled most of them to stay on the roads. They’ve even had to setup metal fabrication shops to make parts from scratch as it has become increasingly difficult to obtain anything from outside sources. ‘Yank tanks’ as the locals call them were around every corner and Matt could not hesitate to stop and take photos as often as possible.
After a mediocre lunch at a touristy corner restaurant that lacked culinary uniqueness like we were hoping, we were set on something for dinner where locals eat. We eventually found a small Gyro restaurant where we all had delicious gyros and lemonade frappes. Our walk home in the dark that night had us feeling uneasy but we made it safe remembering a conversation we had with the local casa operator Manulo after lunch. He told us that Cuba was very safe, and aside from hustlers trying to sell unsuspecting tourists cigars (which we did experience), there is no real criminal activity to worry about. We tried to set our minds at ease, though difficult and we further began to realize that the locals are most likely not very accustomed to tourists, or at least extreme white ones like all of us.
Some crazy electrical wiring:
The following morning we had our first casa meal consisting of fresh fruit, strong coffee, guava smoothies, bread and eggs filled with green onion. Pleasantly surprised by the delicious breakfast and feeling full, we were ready for more exploration of the capitol city.
Museum of the Revolution:
Logging miles of walking, we managed to explore most of Old Havana. We split up from Cole and Megan while they checked out the museum of the revolution, and we set our sights on the perimeter of the tourist zone where we knew there had to be cheaper food where locals use their national peso. Sure enough, we managed to find a small food vendor, which there are very few of, thanks to Sarah’s keen ability to find deals. Their modest menu had sandwiches and pizza likely from the same ingredients, beer and cigars all in the national peso currency.
With not another tourist in sight, we each ordered a personal pizza, Matt ordered a beer and we bought 2 cigars for later, all for the equivalent of $3 or 3 CUC. Prior to this, we had spent no less than $4 per plate and around $2 for beer. Even the casas charge $8-$12 per plate for dinner and $5 for breakfast. We had discovered that the locals were not paying the high costs for things like the tourists, it just didn’t make sense, especially after we were told twice that the average salary is $30/month.
On our way back towards the capitol, we had our second vanagon sighting!
The Capitol building:
Meeting back up with Cole and Megan, we went on a little walking adventure to find some of Cole’s family history. His grandfather had visited Cuba back in 1956 and taken a photo inside of a Rum distillery. Our goal was to find the location and maybe the distillery if it still existed. We walked a main avenue for quite a while looking for the cross streets, and after asking a few kind locals, we had found our location!
We eventually discovered the location of where the distillery once stood thanks to the help of an older gentleman in the neighborhood. Apparently, the distillery had caught a blaze and sent huge fire plumes into the air and gallons and gallons of rum to the sewers. It must have been quite a sight to see, and we envisioned people taking advantage of the surge of rum in one way or another. Now, a 54 unit apartment building fills the space of the once bustling distillery.
Calejon de Hamel:
Heading back to the casa, we had a large serving of pork and chicken with avocado, rice and beans, cucumber salad and fried plantains. Although the food was good, it was as salty as we could handle. We later realized that salt was very popular in Cuba, most likely due to the lack of flavor.
After dinner, we all enjoyed the company of other travelers from Mexico who had befriended a local Cuban, all while enjoying the cigars, and a cuba libre (rum and kola). The following day we planned to rent a car and proceed to see some other cities, beaches, and the beautiful countryside of the mysterious country of Cuba.
After just a few short days, we had come to the conclusion that there is a strong sense of dual cultures happening in Cuba currently. The true Cuban culture, and the Cuban culture set-up for the tourists, reflecting only part of the story. It had slowly surfaced through the use of two currencies and the local advice consistently leading us to the same expensive tourist spots. The unique nature of Havana with rich history, beauty and visual struggles, was very interesting and captivating. Looking forward, we were all excited to see what our other stops Cuba had in store for us.