-When I asked travelers previously what they thought of Cuba the story was usually the same. The beaches are great, the food is terrible, the people are amazing and the rum is almost free..-
The second that you land in Cuba and step a foot into the customs line you feel like you have been transported into the 50s. Looking around at the dark cream walls with burgundy accent colors. Airport employees walk past with uniforms that look like they haven’t changed style in 50 years either. If you come from the states, Immigration will see your US passport and ask you if you would like them to stamp your passport. A lot of people think that because Obama visited Cuba that it’s open for travel. That is definitely not the case. You may travel to Cuba from the US now and not be considered a spy as you were previously if you have proper plans and documents. You can book a tour through an agency for thousands of dollars or you can go on the account that you are volunteering. If not you have to be there on educational purposes only. No wandering beaches and exploring the islands of Cuba. Wellllll that wasn’t going to work for me. The only other loop hole is to fly from Canada or Cancun. Which was my choice… Before leaving cancun I had a 2 hour delay. I messaged a friend that was in Havana at the airport on his way back and told him I had a two hour delay. He sent me this photo of Obama in Air Force One preparing for takeoff.
After exiting the airport I hired a cabby to take me to Old Havana in a 1955 Cadillac. The first thing that I learned is in Cuba unless you have a large travel budget you don’t stay in a hotel. You sleep in a Casa. A house that is usually divided into private rooms with a bathroom that you can rent for an average of $20-$35. The owner of the house sometimes sells beers and may offer to cook you meals for a small fee. After finding a Casa (at 11pm) we dropped off our bags and walked next door to a small one table restaurant where a Cuba gent was cleaning up. He offered to make us chicken and rice for dinner. After two hours of being in Havana I was sitting at a table with three girls traveling Cuba, me, the older gentlemen that owned the small resultant, his much younger women, the owner of the Casa, and a few security guys from a hotel down the street drinking rum talking about the history and the future of Cuba as if we knew each other for years! I was amazed at how quickly I was welcomed by the Cuban people.
It was a long night of talking history and discussing the new beginnings in the making. For a guy like myself, I have traveled all over the world. I have seen a lot of things, so it really does take a lot to get me worked up about something. But when I woke up and walked out of the Casa, I couldn’t believe where I was. Streets filled with Cuban people on foot walking around. Fruit and vegetable carts on the corner. I walked the streets as 50s Chevy Bel Airs and Ford Thunderbirds passed me.
I have lots of tattoos, have a beard, and walked the streets in a straw hat from Guatemala. It was no secret that I was not from Cuba. But the local people would walk up to me and ask me where I am from. After I said the USA they would shake my had. I had complete strangers give me hugs. One guy told me his president is no good. My president is very good. Obama coming to Cuba has given these people hope they haven’t had in many years! The Cuban people have had it pretty rough compared to today’s standard of living. One friend of mine I met in Havana told me that he has seen more change in Cuba in the last 7 months then his people have seen in the last 57 years! They just got access to Internet! It’s an interesting system. You walk to a park and pay a guy $3. He gives you a pull tab like a lottery ticket. One tab has your internet link and other has the password. And that will buy you one hour of Internet. Keeping in mind this is in a country where the basic salary is $30 USD per month.
I met another guy sitting on the river walk that asked me if he could practice his English with new. I was on the verge of passing out from not eating all day and had no water in the 100 degree heat but no problem I told him. Alex was his name and his English was about as terrible as my Spanish but we sat on the side of that River for over an hour. He told me that he worked at the oil refinery along the river in the distance. It was his day off so he takes the bus to the city to come to this place and get peace. He told me that he makes $30 per month and that has to feed himself and both of his retired parents and his younger siblings. He said that he will take a bit of his pay from time to time and buy a book. He has to read it very quickly because he then has to sell it on the black market to get the money back to buy food. He does the same with CDs. Alex decided two years ago that he wanted to learn English. So he bought a dictionary and for two years he taught himself English. Pretty impressive. He told me that the working man in Cuba is poor. And that the teachers might only make $50 a month and the doctor can make $60. But the cab driver on the other hand is rich! They can make a months salary of the average man multiple times in one day!
You must have a permit to work in tourism. Alex told me that he had been waiting for years in line for that permit. The truth is he will probably never get that dream server job he wants because the cards aren’t dealt that way now in Cuba. But we can both hope things will change for the people!
The people of Cuba are great. The culture is amazing! The music is everywhere. But the food really is terrible. They lack options, spices and flavor. So if you take one thing from this, let me tell you where to eat!
My first day in Havana I walked a few blocks from the Casa looking for food and ended up at Sloppy Joes. (Not to be confused with the Sloppy Joes in Key West) The bar that the Los Angeles Times called “One of the most famous bars of all time!” The bar opened in the 30s by immigrant Jose Garcia. During prohibition American tourists would come to Havana for the night life, gambling and the booze they couldn’t get in the states. It was visited by everyone from John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable and Frank Sinatra. After the revolution in 1959 and the embargo from the United States denied US travelers. Sloppy Joes shut down soon after.. After a long renovation they recently reopened the bar back to its old glory!
Bodeguita del Medio opened its doors in 1942. The walls are covered with signatures and quotes from people ever since. Salvador Allende, Pablo Neruda and Ernest Hemingway all frequented the Bodeguita Del Medio. Hemingway wrote on the wall “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” They make claim to have invented the Mojito in this building in the 1942 soon after they opened..
La Floridita- It opened in 1817 with the name “La Piña de Plata”. (The Silver Pineapple) Over 100 years later, tourists from North America started frequenting the bar and convinced the owner to change the name to La Florida, which over time is now La Floridita. In 1914, an immigrant by the name of Constantino began tending bar at La Floridita and by 1918 he owned the bar. Constante as they call him was credited in the early 30s for inventing the frozen daiquiri. The bar became a school of highly skilled bartenders specializing in cocktails made with fresh fruit juices and rum. Today the traditions are still preserved by the disciples of this Mr. Constante. The bar was also frequented in the 1930’s by Ernest Hemingway who occupied a hotel room near by for years..
So you can possibly pay visit to the home of the sloppy joe, the mojito and the daquri all in one day!
My first night in Havana I asked what was a must see. An older gentlemen told me I must ride in a 57 Chevy, dance the tango and smoke a Cuban cigar. Pay a visit to the house of rum and Cuban tobacco pictured below.
I had plans to come to Havana no matter what while traveling this year. But when I was in Nicaragua I caught wind of the Rolling Stones coming to Cuba to play a free show! I actually skipped a large part of the Yucatan in Mexico just to make it for this concert. This was set to be the biggest concert in Cuba since the Revolution in 59! They denied the biggest acts in the world such as the Beetles and Elvis and the rest of the invasion of Rock and Roll.
I read about history every day. I write about it as often as I can but to see it happen in front of my eyes was something else. Forget about witnessing history for a second. To see the look on these peoples faces. No matter if they were 15 or 50 to be with them to see the first concert of their lives was pretty cool. The Rolling Stones have played a million shows but I promise never one like this. One show, 5 hunnnnndred thousand people, and not one single fight, drunk guy sleeping on the grass and probably the first Rolling Stones concert in history where there was no alcohol or pot smoke in the air. Only Cuban cigars. I’m just glad to see Keith Richards is 153 years old and still had girls pulling their hair out..
The following day I took a city tour on a double decker bus around Havana. In previous days I could see whenever I would talk about the government people seemed to get a bit uncomfortable. No one wants to talk much about old history. I saw this first hand on the city tour. I thought they would take me to sights that Che Guavara made grand speeches and show me places where Batista was overthrown. I saw no such thing on the city tour. They told me where the hospital and supermarkets were. I did get a look at the monument of Che and Fidel and saw the newly opened US embassy though!
Old Havana is definitely worth a visit. You can walk from the capital through Central Park to La Floridita to the walking street. Lots of little shops and restaurants. If you see a churro cart do yourself a favor and stop..
At the end near the river is the fort and Old Havana. People selling amazing political posters and books. Some art and old trinkets.
After a few days of wandering Havana I hired a cab to take me for the two and a half hour drive down the coast of Cuba to the beach town of Varadero.
Varadero is a nice change of pace from Havana. People are a bit more pleasant and much less pushy as they are in Havana. Either way the Cuban people are expressly welcoming and helpful! I was walking down the streets of Varadero looking for a Casa to rest my head. A women stopped me and told me that her place was full. She then called every friend she had for nearly 25 minutes until she found me a place to stay. I told her I was from the United States and she gave me a hug and told me welcome!
I have seen beaches in North and South America as well as Asia and I have to believe the beaches of Cuba will give the best beaches anywhere a run for their money! The water was perfect!
If you have plans to travel to Cuba there are a few things you should know. ATM machines are few and far between and your credit or debit card doesn’t work in cuba. You need to bring cash! Also at this moment US dollars have a bad exchange rate. The Euro is better and the Mexican peso is much better then the other currency’s. Also while in Cuba do not exchange money in the streets. You are garonteed to get taken advantage of. Go to the bank, take a number, wait in line and exchange your money there. Or go to a deca deca currency exchange office. I got a better rate here. Last thing to know about currency in cuba. There is two money system so. One is meant for tourists (CUC), and the other for local people. (Peso) The CUC is equivalent to USD. 1=1. The local peso is not really worth the money it is printed on but you may revive some of this in change from street vendors. It used to be illegal to have local money or for them to have tourist money but I don’t think anyone seems to care any more.
So a bit of history of Cuba.. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara lead the revolution. It took from 1953-1959 to overthrow Cuban government and president Batista to a revolutionary socialist state. Batista antagonized the population by forming lucrative links to organized crime and allowing American companies to dominate the Cuban economy. The people also only had very limited sources for clean drinking water. That was the first promise made by Castro to the people. The promise of clean drinking water.
Fidel and brother Raul once tried to overthrow the government and were imprisoned. Fidel was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His brother Raul got a 13 year sentence. However in 1955 under broad political pressure Batista freed all political prisoners in Cuba. Soon after the brothers met other exiles in Mexico to prepare the overthrow of Batistas government. In Mexico young lawyer Fidel met a young Argentinian doctor by the name of Che Guevara. They had lunch in Holbox, Mexico (where I began writing this post) and then sailed to Cuba to fight the present government and start the revolution.
Soon after the United States placed an embargo on Cuba weakening the government. Batista lost support from most Cuban people. Either to join the revolution or distance themselves. Support for Batista was mainly from US businessmen and the Mafia. After the embargo the Cuban Air Force couldn’t get parts to repair planes. Fidel with a group of men sometimes as fewer then 200 took on the Cuban military and police force of over 37,000 people and almost every time there was a military strike, they had to retreat. Once the government sent 12,000 soldiers and they were defeated by Fidel’s men. Once they took on a 500 men battalion. The revolution captured 240 men and only lost three of their own! After words of all the defeat Batista panicked and took flight for the Dominican Republic.
Fidel soon came from the mountains to the capital and appointed the new president.
Over 75% of the best land in Cuba was owned by US companies. One of the first policies of the newly formed Cuban revolution was eliminating illiteracy and the second being land reforms.
In 1959 all land and property owned by upper and middle class people was nationalized. Basically if you lived in Cuba and you lived in an apartment complex, you now own your apartment. It’s your house now. The farms owned by the wealthy companies from the states were taken over by the government.
Eisenhower froze all assets of Cubans on US soil and tightened the embargo. The American Embargo against Cuba is the longest lasting single foreign policy in American history!
During the first decade of Castro in power they improved rights for black Cubans, women, better health care, better housing, medical facilities and education. By the end of the 60s all children were reviving education. Previous to 1959 less then 40% of children in Cuba were educated.
Without getting any more political about the history of Cuba, read about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis.
Where to stay-
In Havana stay at Casa Idania Obispo! Obispo No. 517 firstname.lastname@example.org Great location! Rooftop patio. Near restaurants and old Havana. $30 per night.
In Veradero most of the casas are very nice! Full apartments with bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom for $30-$35 per night.
What to eat-
In Havana pizza at Don Saluatore. Owner is Italian from NYC. Best pizza in Cuba!
Sloppy Joes has a good sloppy joe sandwich.
Cafe Paris has a good ropa viejo.
Getting to and from-
I had lots of problems booking flight for Cuba. So I went to Savanah travel agency and they booked flight for me from Cancun to Cuba with three days notice for $260. Make sure that includes your entrance and exit taxes. Also be sure you do not get your passport stamped if you are from the states!
(Black and white photos-photographer unknown)