Viva la Cuba! We Begin in Havana!

When Cuba opened up for United States citizens, I kept hearing from fellow travelers, “Better go soon before it changes!” Having now just returned from a month’s travels throughout the western half of Cuba, my response to that comment would be: “Wait until economic relations equalize between the U.S. and Cuba.” As it stands as of November 2016, U.S. citizens need to take all cash for their entire trip – banks will not accept U.S. debit or credit cards (only a very few high-end hotels may accept U.S. credit cards). The exchange rate of US$1 was roughly 0.94687, with an additional 10% subtracted from that amount (a fee against the U.S. dollar as there is no charge levied against any other currency), leaves US$1 equaling about 0.85 CUC (Cuban commercial money). If you wish to shop in the locals’ stores and eateries, you can exchange some of your CUCs to CUBs, which is the currency a large percent of the locals and their businesses use. The exchange rate is currently 1 CUC=CUB 24 or 25.  With CUBs you will be able to purchase food, gifts, etc. at much lower prices than the tourist stores charge, unless those sellers gouge you because it’s obvious you’re a tourist, which most of them will do. So be aware, if you’re an American and travel to Cuba before the economic situation between the U.S. and Cuba is smoothed out, it is MUCH more expensive than I would EVER have imagined (and I wasn’t alone in that perception – European travelers were saying the same). So with that little heads up, Viva la Cuba! Let’s go for a visit!

My flight arrived in Havana – Interjet from Mexico City – and I paid 30 CUC (roughly US$35) for the 20 minute taxi ride from the Havana Airport to my first AirB&B. (You must book your AirB&Bs while you’re still in the States, as the site won’t let you book once you’re in Cuba – it’s because of the non-normalized US dollar.) Stayed there 2 nights, then moved to another Casa closer to Old Havana for an additional 2 nights before leaving Havana.

During my three full days in Havana I took a wonderful open-topped tour bus ride throughout the main areas of Havana, which was a fantastic way of becoming familiar with the city’s regions.

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The hop-on hop-off ride started at Plaza de la Revolucion which honors the freedom that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro managed to wrench away from Batista and the corporate conglomerates that were dictating the country for their own personal monetary gain while letting the commoners starve.

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The bus drove us by Necropolis de Colon, one of the largest cemeteries in the world at 135 acres and roughly 2 million people buried there, then on to the Malecon where we headed west down the long beach-side drive into the Playa area of Havana (playa means beach).

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Hanging a U-ey at the far western end of the Playa section of Havana, the bus took us back to Plaza de la Revolucion and then north to the Malecon where it headed east along the ocean-side into Old Havana. I hopped off and spent a little time in that stunning section of town that afternoon.

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Across the waterway that leads into Havana’s large bay (Bahia de la Habana) is an old Fort, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. Out at the very point is the Parque Historico Morro Cabana, also called Castillo de Morro. Designed in 1589 by an Italian architect, its purpose was to detect and defend against foreign enemies, namely pirates, as Havana was a bustling main shipping point of various treasures from the New World back to Spain, and pirates were a’plenty, matey!

Old Havana is quite impressive – the amazing Spanish architecture, the parks, the sculptures, the churches, the boats, the old Fort…

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Such a wonderful day in Old Havana, also known as La Habana Vieja (pronounced La Habana Bee-ay’-ha).

Most tourists were from almost every country in Europe, yet some were from Australia, Canada, Serbia, and a few were from the U.S., like myself.

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The music in the pubs was fantastic!

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Spent a fair amount of time just walking the streets and sight-seeing while cross-checking what I was looking at with my guide books – one Frommer’s and one DK Eyewitness Travel. Wish I had taken a Loney Planet guide book, as I later discovered from other tourists how much more information they covered, and their map of Havana extends over a larger area.

In a small section of Old Havana is an open-air Afro-Cuban sanctuary called Callejon de Hamel, named after a wealthy French-German arms dealer who took the area under his wing. Much of the artwork  painted on the buildings’ side walls was started in the early 1990s by renowned Cuban artist Salvador Gonzalez who wished to pay tribute to his African roots by sharing the symbols and images of African gods and devils.

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I had not realized the extent of the African slave population in Cuba, but after the Spanish conquistadors had taken over the island from its indigenous population and then used them as slaves until they all died out or committed suicide, they then depended on African slaves imported from the Congo to farm their plantations and do all the menial labor. Sound familiar?

After three lovely days of experiencing Havana, my Casa Particulares hostess, Odalis, who I had booked through AirB&B, arranged a taxi for me to go to Vinales, a popular mountain town situated a three-hour drive to the west. She also lined me up with a friend of hers in Vinales who also has a Casa, so I had a room already reserved for me at my destination. Sweet!

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Enjoyed a nice Casa breakfast on my last Havana morning with a young German couple, then the taxi arrived and off we went to collect another couple, then to the highway for the three hour drive to Vinales.

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Along the way, our taxi stopped to buy some diesel gas on the black market, which sells for 30% less than at the pump, apparently. Ours wasn’t the only taxi there, showing this is very common. I was a bit nervous at first as he pulled off the highway into the bushes, but he said “Don’t worry, I get gas” so I chose to believe him. I don’t think I met one Cuban who lied.

Arrived in Vinales with no incident. One thing I can absolutely say for certain – the people in Cuba are good people. I never once felt endangered or fearful that I might be robbed. I found it to be one of the safest places I’ve ever traveled. That’s not to say they won’t try to pitch you the highest price they think you’ll accept. You must be prepared to barter down the price of taxis, market items, or anything else that is barterable. Of course, store items, restaurants, bars and the like have set prices. But the cost of many other things, including Casa Particulares (rooms in private houses) can be bartered.

And the scenery of the mountain country of Vinales is gorgeous! How delighted I was to be in beautiful Nature again – that’s the next post! Don’t miss it!

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