Cuba is complicated.
That’s the phrase I’ve found myself repeating most often while rehashing the details of my #PARALLAXploration in Havana to friends and family.
Although diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were restored in July of 2015, there were still a few obstacles standing between me and my trip to the lone communist country in the Western hemisphere.
For starters, commercial travel from the US directly to Havana was not an option at the time of my trip, and tourism is not one of the twelve approved categories for individual travel to Cuba. Tickets from Mexico to Havana were significantly cheaper than a seat on one of the daily charter flights departing from Miami. However, actually making the purchase proved a bit tricky. It took a few hours on the phone with AeroMexico, but eventually I got my tickets.
Picking an “approved travel reason” required a bit more thought, but after reviewing the Treasury Department guidelines for travel to Cuba I felt confident that my trip would fit into several of the approved categories. And, given what I’d read online about a lack enforcement, I wasn’t overly concerned about being questioned – or fined.
After a red-eye from Tijuana to Mexico City (site of my 2014 Xploration) and a short layover, I arrived in Havana. The airport struck me as particularly sleepy considering that it serves a city of nearly 2.5 million residents. American credit cards don’t work (yet) in Cuba, which meant that for my four days in Havana, I needed cash. My first stop was the airport currency exchange.
There are two currencies in Cuba: Cuban Pesos, used by the government to pay state wages, and by locals use to purchase basic (price controlled) goods like fruit and vegetables; and Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs (“kooks”), the tourist currency, whose value is tied to the US dollar.
Official currency exchanges, like the one I used in the airport, will gladly swap American dollars for CUCs, but, there’s a catch. If you’re changing US dollars for Cuban pesos, there’s a 13% tax. As I learned later in my visit, locals will often give you a better deal, offering a slightly friendlier rate of 10%.
And that’s not the only deal to be had. In a country where average monthly wage for an individual is just $20/month, many locals have figured out ways to supplement their income via old fashioned entrepreneurial spirit.
Cubans who have registered with the government can now operate their own private vehicles as taxis and rent out rooms in their homes to tourists. You can even book rooms in Havana on AirBnB. Average rates at a “casa particular” range from $25-$40/night.
I found cab prices to be much more variable. As a rule, private taxis (which are clearly marked, and cater mostly to tourists) are more expensive than the rumbling, column-shifting Chevys operated by locals. These “maquinas”, as they’re known on the island, are the preferred choice for adventurers that don’t mind sharing a bench seat with a stranger (or four), and who view seatbelts as more of a modern inconvenience than a useful safety device. If you’re looking to travel in style, go for one of the immaculately refurbished, convertible classics glistening in vivid paint and polished chrome. You can hire a driver for as long as a day or as little as an hour – like most things in Cuba, rates are negotiable.
The owner of the casa where I was renting a room offered to serve as my private tour guide (for a reasonable fee of course) and, along with his eldest son, to provide private transportation in the family car – a Soviet-era Lada – which started right up when you touched the right wires together.
I spent the next four days sweating in the back seat of that Lada, peppering them with questions – “¿Que es eso…que es eso?” – as we criss crossed Havana and the surrounding countryside. Visiting “Finca Vigia”, the house that Hemingway called home for 20 years – where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea – and a road trip to the neighboring region of Matanzas were personal highlights.
Music is inescapable in Havana, whether it’s the classic standards of “Son Cubano”, played on street corners or table-side at tourist spots, or the latin pop and reggaeton pumping from the speakers of virtually every maquina passing by. There’s plenty of jazz and afro-cuban beat to be found, but the theses spots typically attract an older crowd. Vedado, the trendy neighborhood adjacent to central Havana, skews younger, and is spotted with bars and restaurants where tourists and locals alike queue for late night ice creams and “perritos calientes” (hot dogs).
If you’re in the market for cigars (And why wouldn’t you be? It’s Cuba after all.) don’t buy from the corner tobacco store, or at the gift shop following your factory tour. Locals will gladly offer to sell you cigars at discounted rates. Typically, this means one of two things: they either have a friend at the factory who is skimming, or they’re selling you counterfeit Cohibas. Here’s a handy reference guide: Cuban Cigars: Why they’re the best, and how to spot a fake.
Internet access is spotty at best. Most locals get online via wifi zones located throughout the city. Teenagers and twenty-somethings sell cards on the street that allow you to log on for $2 or $3/hour – much more reasonable than the $10/hour that the tourist hotels will charge for non-guests.
Cuba is baseball crazy, and by pure coincidence my trip overlapped with the World Series, which pitted my childhood team, the Kansas City Royals against the New York Mets. Watching those games, and seeing the Royals win their first World Series title in 30 years from a bar in Havana is a memory I will never forget.
The Cuban people I met were friendly, open, and conversational, curious to hear my impressions of Cuba, eager to talk baseball, and excited to tell me about their relatives in the states (Miami). Many had never been off the island. Most evenings I made my way down to the malecon, the seawall stretching from old Havana to Vedado, chatting with locals and sipping beers from streetside stands.
My stay was short, but I couldn’t help but notice a recurring theme during my visit – one of contrast.
The easy rhythm of daily life that I encountered in Havana contrasted sharply with the hustle, bustle, and constant connectivity of my life in the states.
The romanticism of the revolution, as depicted in murals, and billboards throughout the city, flew in the face of the limited opportunity it has afforded average Cuban citizens.
Cuba’s world class healthcare, public safety, and education, in contrast with the crumbling buildings, cratered roads, and recurring food shortages common on the island.
Globalization, geopolitics, the practical challenges of modern Marxism-Leninism…these are complicated topics. But as far as I can tell, day-to-day life on the island is really pretty simple.
Maybe that’s what makes the place feel so damn romantic; so frozen in time.
Maybe it’s the world that’s complicated, and Cuba just hasn’t caught up yet – perhaps it never will.
Part of me hopes so. But then on the other hand, what would that mean for the standard of living, the basic freedoms and opportunities for the average Cuban?
Maybe there’s a sweet spot for modern Cuba, somewhere between the extremes of isolationism and globalization. Maybe there’s a way for Cuba to modernize without becoming indistinguishable from every other tourist trap in the Caribbean; to preserve the simplicity, the romance – the magic – of visiting a place that time forgot.
Maybe….but I have my doubts.
Like I said, it’s complicated.