Exploring Cuba – Part 1

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If you travel because you like to see different cultures and experience things you usually don’t, Cuba is a good place to go. For Americans Cuba has been kind of like forbidden fruit. I thought it was a good time to go as it recently became easier, and I wanted to see the country before it gets changed too much by hordes of tourists.

Although they do have beautiful beaches, as an American you can’t currently legally go there just to stay at a beach resort. You have to declare which category you are traveling under, and tourism is not one of them. Most people choose the people-to-people category. When I went last month with my wife and daughter, I chose the journalism category, as I have a blog and photography site, but in practice, I think it’s rare that anyone actually checks. That could change with the incoming administration, though. In this article I’ll get into some of the details of the trip, for those interested in going.

We flew from Seatac to Miami airport and stayed at the Miami International Airport Hotel, conveniently in the terminal, saving time to catch the early morning flight to Havana on Delta Airlines. We obtained our visa when we checked in, paying $25 for each one. That’s part of the reason they tell you to check in 3 hours early.

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Although you will see plenty of places that accept credit cards, including MasterCard and Visa, they do not accept American credit or debit cards. Thus you have to carry cash. There are two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is about equal to a US dollar, and the Cuban Peso (CUP), mainly used by locals, and about 24 CUP equals 1 CUC. The official rate is used everywhere, except for the black market. You will pay about 3% to change you money to CUC and 3% to change it back, but if it’s US dollars they tack on an extra 10% as punishment for our embargo. I converted my dollars to Canadian dollars first, saving about 7% (saving 10% not converting from US currency, but paying 3% for converting it to Canadian). When I left Cuba I converted the relatively little CUC I had left to Euro, as I plan to go there later in the year.  You can convert money at the airport and at banks, but the later often had lines out the door. Major hotels often will convert money, but some require that you stay there. Most places did not give a receipt.

Except for one night, we only stayed at places we booked through Airbnb. One place was basically a guest suite connected to a beautiful large house with friendly hosts, and a very nice breakfast for an additional 5 CUC per person. Another place was really a hotel that they were using Airbnb for bookings. One was from an older couple that owned a few apartments and rented out a couple of them. Having to deal with just cash was a little nerve wracking. I carried a fairly large sum in a money belt most of the trip. I never worried about being robbed, but it was uncomfortable in the heat. Even more concerning was worrying about the possibility that I might run out of money. The first couple of days was more expensive than I anticipated and I contacted a cousin that by coincidence was arriving in Havana a week later than us. She brought me some money as a loan. I never ended up needing it, but it did provide peace of mind.  A big advantage of Airbnb is that you pay that in advance, so you do not need to bring money for your lodging. At a couple of the places they incidentally did offer to exchange dollars to CUC at better than the official rate, though probably not quite as good as if you exchanged using Euro or Canadian dollars. I didn’t use them, and you have to be careful, but I would have over standing in line at a bank. I advise you to convert a little more than what you think you will need for your entire trip, and carry emergency money in your native currency that you would only change if needed.

For the three of us, I rightfully worried about getting around with lots of luggage. We limited ourselves to one carry on luggage without any full check in size luggage. Particularly as I was bringing some medical supplies (more on that later), and anything you might need but can’t count on being able to buy there, space was at a premium. One thing I did was to buy two pairs of quick drying ExOfficio underwear, and Sea to Summit Lite Line clothesline to hang it up on.

It just so happened that we arrived in Havana the day Fidel Castro was buried in Santiago de Cuba. Raúl Castro declared a 9 day mourning period after Fidel died, banning public music and sales of alcohol. It was not followed completely, but it was certainly more subdued when we first arrived. They have 9 or so TV channels, and during the mourning period they played revolutionary type programming, such as black and white videos (or dramas?) of soldiers fighting in the jungle. As one Cuban told me, it was interesting, but not for 9 days.

We went on our own, not part of a tour, though I worked with a Cuban tourist guide someone introduced me to before the trip. She made suggestions to the itinerary I made, and helped me hire a car and driver for 6 days. One of the travel changes I made at her suggestion was to cancel a fight to Baracoa on the other end of the island. I hadn’t realized that it had been badly damaged by Hurricane Matthew. In addition, the only airline that flies there, Cubana de Aviación, is notorious for bad service. When I made the flight reservations I had to enter all our contact and passport information. To my chagrin the email confirmation included all of the details! I emailed them about my concerns about identity theft, but they never responded.

One of the other things our guide did was to make many restaurant reservations for us, which was surprisingly often necessary.  When it comes to restaurants, there are two kinds: state owned, and private. The latter were only allowed less than 3 years ago. They are generally more expensive, but better quality. We ate at a few of the state owned places. Although the buildings were often beautiful, the food quality was often lacking, serving such things as canned green beans.  In Havana, restaurants we particularly liked included La Guarida, San Cristóbal Paladar, Doña Eutimia, El Cocinero, Atelier, and Paladar Vistamar. In Cienfuegos Las Mamparas was quite cheap and pretty good food. In the Viñales Valley Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso was amazing.

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When people think of Cuba, they think about old cars. There are many American cars from the 1950’s, quite a few Russian Lada cars, plenty of Chinese and other cars. Cars are very expensive (it can be the same as a house there), and most everyone with a car is also a mechanic. You have to be to keep the cars running. Our driver said that a particular 7 person Hyundai van was popular for giving group tours, and a used one, if you could get it, cost 140,000 CUC!

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It was common to see people on horseback or in horse drawn carriages, particularly outside of Havana. I even saw two using the inside passing lane on the highway!

After a couple of days in Havana, we drove to Cienfuegos, stopping at the Giron Museum (Museo Giron) by the Bay of Pigs, and the Cueva de los Peces (Cave of Fishes). We passed by areas where the farmers spread their rice on the the edge of the road to dry, then would sweep it up at the end of the day, then repeat it for about 6 days to totally dry the rice.

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Cienfuegos is a nice port city that has a French influence. Outside the usual tourist things there, we toured a cemetery, where a couple of boys rode up on a donkey. We visited a botanical garden. We also took a day trip to El Nicho waterfalls, and another to Trinidad.

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Trinidad, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a charming cobblestone paved town. It’s reportedly often the hottest part of Cuba, and even in December it was pretty warm.

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We left Cienfuegos to drive to Santa Clara where we saw the town and the Che Guevera Monument. From there we drove to quiet but lovely town of Remedios to spend the night.

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Next it was on to the Santa Maria Cayo (key). The road there reminded me of driving to the Florida Keys. We spent 1/2 a day at the Lasterrazas resort. As I said earlier, technically you can’t go to Cuba just to take a beach vacation as a US citizen. It was just a small fraction of our trip not only for that reason, but because that wasn’t what I wanted out of a trip to Cuba, though I know many others could spend their whole time there.

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We then drove back to Havana, where we stayed the rest of the trip, except for a day trip the following day to the town of Pinar Del Río, where we toured a cigar factory,  then on to the Viñales Valley where we gorged ourselves over lunch at the amazing Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso.  We saw a couple of sites, including the tacky Mural de la Prehistoria.

Our driver said the Pinar Del Rio province, where they grow a lot of tobacco, is called the Valley of the Fools. He told the story of Pedro Perez. Before a race he was invited to answer a question for a prize. The announcer said, “OK Pedro, how much is 2 plus 2?”  “6,” he replied. The crowd roared, “Give him another chance. Give him another chance.”  The announcer said, “Ok Pedro, I’ll give you another chance. How much is 2 plus 2?”  Pedro scratched his head and thought about it and said, “5.” Again the crowd yelled, “Give him another chance. Give him another chance.” The announcer said, “This is your last chance, so think carefully, Pedro. I asked you how much is 2 plus 2. First you said 6, then you said 5, so what is your answer?” “4,” said Pedro. The crowd shouted, “Give him another chance. Give him another chance.”

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Back in Havana we took a trip to the outskirts to see Hemingway’s estate. Our taxi driver gave us a tour, though you will get a lot more information if you take an official tour (I listened in on some of them).

As a communist economy, mixed with a little capitalism, there are some strange things when it comes to prices. Taxi drivers often make more than doctors. Natural gas in Havana is cheap. Our driver said the prior month it cost him 25 cents. Because that’s the same price as a box of matches, some people leave their stoves on all the time.

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Dogs run wild in many places. They were never threatening and most seemed well fed. Although some people have them as pets, many are on their own.

The Cuban people are often critical of their government, when asked in private, though proud of some of their achievements, such as medical care and literacy. To thumb their nose at communism, many cars have Apple stickers on them. Kids may sing America from West Side Story in front of the neighborhood commander.

Cuba has a vibrant music scene. We enjoyed some of it, but missed a lot because we couldn’t stay up late enough.

There is no longer a limit on importing cigars or rum for personal use. At the airport I decided to buy two more bottles of rum, one dark, and one white, plus some honey, at the duty free shop. When we arrived at Atlanta we had to pick up our luggage then turn it back in to go to Seatac before going back through security. One of the workers there said clear bottles were not a problem going through the x-rays in security, but he recommended taking out dark bottles and putting it in our luggage. I showed the duty free bag and he said to put the dark rum and honey in my bag but the clear bottle could go in my carry on. I didn’t have room to check all of it in, and I questioned whether it was really ok to open the duty free bag. He said it was no problem at that point and to trust him. I shouldn’t have. When I made it to security they saw the clear bottle and said it couldn’t go through since the duty free bag had been opened. I was told I could go back to check it in (but my suitcase was long since gone) or throw it away. I didn’t ask if I could just drink it on the spot!

You can see more of my photos here. In my next post I’ll discuss some health and medical issues regarding Cuba.

 

About Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP

I'm an internal medicine physician and have avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when I wrote my first medically oriented computer programs. So yes, that means I'm at least 35-years-old!
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One Response to Exploring Cuba – Part 1

  1. Daniel Nash says:

    Not going to lie, I’m pretty jealous right now.

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