I have ALWAYS wanted to go to Cuba, and back in Spring 2017, I REALLY wanted to go during my rest in the USA, but I was too exhausted from 8 of 10 months traveling. So, when I knew I would be returning to the USA for my cousin’s wedding in 2018, I was determined to make it happen. I was a wee bit nervous from the discussion about “purposes of visiting” and as a US citizen, not being able to claim tourism, but once I got to the counter to buy my visa, the desk clerk was super casual about it, “what is your purpose of travel? support of the local people” Okay great. It was like another mundane question like “What is your name? Here is your boarding pass”. I got my visa and visitor card, boarding pass, and went off to my gate. The adventure started BEFORE I even arrived in Cuba!
FLYING TO CUBA
Flying out of Fort Lauderdale was an exceptionally interesting experience. Flying with Southwest, there was an attendant walking around to inform each person that the backpack goes under the seat in front of you, and the suitcase goes above. She approached me while speaking Spanish, not sure why she thought a red-headed caucasian in the USA would be fluent in Spanish. . .I kindly told her I don’t know what she just said. She repeated it back in English.
At first, I was perplexed why they would be so micromanaging, as it’s obvious that you do this with your baggage. It was so unlike Southwest. Well, the boarding commenced. As I got seated, and most passengers boarded, chaos became exceedingly greater as the plane got closer to filling. I suppose most Cubans hadn’t been on an airplane before, because they were smashing bags anywhere they could find space, large duffels were bulging out of the seats below. Some had no foot space because they had stuffed all of their belongings in front of them. It amazed me that this was even possible! There was a lot of Spanish being spoken, and flight attendants were starting to get flustered. I had no idea what was happening until a line of people were filling the aisles, bags were being shoved in places they wouldn’t fit, and attendants coming to the rescue. My neighbor informed me that there were too many bags on board, and too many people got on the plane. How this had happened was a total mystery. Our plane was over 30 minutes delayed because of the lack of experience with the boarding procedure. It was the start of a very long day. Finally, they resolved things and we were on our way!
Upon arrival to Havana, we disembarked across the tarmac, entered the building, and waited in a line for customs clearance. Once they buzzed me through the door, another long line for security awaited me. Little organization created several lines with people trying to cut into the front. Eventually, I put my stuff on the small conveyor belt (long enough for one person’s baggage) and walked through the metal detector. No laptop out or shoes off! It was amazing! I was finished. I walked passed the medical ladies who collected the medical forms (which I forgot to fill out from the plane). I grabbed a slip and asked the woman guarding the exit for a pen. Through the doors were crowds of taxi drivers waiting to attack!
I searched for the currency exchange and a taxi driver walked me over. I knew he’d be waiting. I changed money and then exited. He was there and tried following. I told him no and found a guy standing quietly in the distance. I asked how much, he said 25. Perfect. Then we walked to the car and the Cuban music started, the scenery started moving, and I was finally in Cuba!
My driver rolled down windows and slowed down so I could take pictures. He tried telling me what things were. I don’t know Spanish. But it was still good enough. He delivered me easily to my Airbnb and made sure I got to the right door. The neighbor guys standing around helped ring the doorbell, and I had arrived!
My AirBnb host was super hospitable. When I asked about the wifi, she offered to take me. I had NO idea what this meant. I followed her for about 5 different blocks, around a few corners, she brought me to a small stall in the middle of a parking lot. It was surrounded by people waiting in a line, and we proceeded to wait an entire hour for the line. I was rationed 3, one hour cards... (because the 5 hour cards were already gone for the day) which was lame. I needed my passport to show the woman as well. The government regulates the internet rations. I decided I would get more the next day. She helped me find some water at their “supermarket” (which consists of rum, canned tomatoes, canned beans, canned meat, frozen meat, water, oil, and bread. Not much was left in that store. . . ) and we got back to the house. They had an internet router, which gave you access to the country’s internet, but you had to log in with your cards. She didn’t tell me that once you were done, you needed to log off your internet or disconnect the modem from the wall, so I lost about an hour of my internet solely because I did what any modern person does: stop using your phone and walk away. . . oops!
I was staying a bit north of the downtown area, way farther than I would have liked, but you live and learn. It was about a mile away, which for any other time of the year, is fine. Early June in Cuba? Not so much. It was humid and scorching hot. You end up sweating through your clothes after a VERY brief stint outside. I would highly recommend going to Cuba between October and February - the colder Fall and Winter months. Just be smart!
As Americans we aren't able to withdrawal cash from ATM’s in Cuba, nor can we use our credit cards when making purchases. So, I HIGHLY recommend using Airbnb to limit the amount of cash you need to bring. Remember that “wifi” doesn’t actually mean “wifi”, but overall, with the map feature and reviews, you’re guaranteed to find something that will offer a great local experience. I loved using Airbnb in Cuba because you had the modern amenities and accommodation that meets your standards of living. The alternative is showing up to find “casa particulars” (or you can find them online), but it was much easier to use Airbnb for me.
From the Capitol building, across the street are the hallmark four-five colorful buildings that pop up in everyone’s Havana photographs.
And to the north of these buildings is a large boulevard area with tons of classic cars to rent for a ride next to a gorgeous park square. There were many benches lined under the canopy of trees.
OLD HAVANA (HABANA)
From the capitol to the east waterfronts, the buildings are old and falling apart, under construction, and popping with activity. There are colors everywhere, people wandering the streets, sitting on sidewalks and doorsteps, and surprises are around every corner. Some of the most interesting photographs from Havana are in these streets.
I found that a lot of people wanted me to take their photo, simply because I had a professional camera. They were super happy people. When I asked for their email to send them the photo, they said “No, gracias”. I thought it was so weird and incredible that they were simply content and enjoying the moments. Not posing for the camera because they wanted anything.
The most modern and redone area is at the very tip of the water area. It’s been painted and redone to appeal to the tourists. I feel like its equally gorgeous and brings back to life how the streets looked 50 years prior.
In the center of the newer area resides the hotel where Hemingway lived and wrote for decades. Ambos Mundos. This is the lobby:
As well as his favorite cafe!
The last notable place in the area was the perfume factory. I ended up buying two different bottles!
A few more noteworthy places to wander . . .
When you walk back beyond the capitol, theres a China town, as well as some other gems. I found this torn up road :
on the way to La Guardia, a restaurant that’s gained recognition on social media from its photogenic staircase!
A few more from the area around my Airbnb.
Let me know if you have any questions about Cuba, I would love to answer your questions in the future posts. Trinidad and Cienfuegos are coming up next!