Back to 1953: My First Cuba Impression and a Practical Travel Guide

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Why the year 1953? It’s because 1953 was the year when the Cuban Revolution began. Since then, the time stood still owing to the American embargo. The El Bloqueo had Cuba preserved as an open-air museum of communism for quite a while without the influence of America. The country had no American chain stores, no American fast food, no Coca-Cola, no Starbucks, and even not much outdoor commercial advertising. A lot of it has changed as time goes by, and since the US has loosened the embargo, Cuba gradually opened its doors and it is not as “closed” as it was once said to be. Cuba still has a trace of isolated quality that is unique and fascinating to a lot of travelers. Check out the picture of Havana’s old town and old buildings, they are frequently featured in many travel magazines and books.

Flying to Cuba

Nuts as a snack on the flight, with the lady tapping her phone next to me.

For a long time, Cuba had no direct commercial flights to the United States. For my adventure to Cuba, I left L.A. and headed to Havana through Cancun, the most convenient stopover from the West coast. Other possible cities that have a direct flight to Havana are Toronto or Mexican City. For years, “Havana” equals “Central American” to me, and it’s a paradise for those who love a tropical, retro-vibe.

The flight to Havana was a bit old and dusty but fortunately, it was only an hour from Cancun, Mexico. A lady sitting next to me in the first row was obviously familiar with the crew on board. She was talking loudly to the crew in fluent Spanish and no one intended to stop her when she was playing with her smartphone during taxi or takeoff… but well, soon I would be cut off from the rest of the world because my international roaming services don’t cover Cuba; while the hotel’s lobby did have paid Wi-Fi, I opt to stay off the grid and get some digital detox for a few days.

Staying Connected in Cuba

Just in case you really need to stay connected, it’s possible to do so in Cuba with some Cuban roaming charges – but not as convenient as it is with the rest of the world. For US mobile users, Verizon and AT&T both have contracts with ETECSA to provide roaming services.

Sweet and thick Cuba pear juices

For phone services, You can also rent a SIM card from Cubacel to use your mobile phone in Cuba, you may even buy a SIM card, but you may spend a few hours dealing with this once you arrived. All in all, if you only need to stay connected with the internet, ETECSA operates a number of internet cafés (Telepuntos) in Havana and Santiago. Typically you can purchase internet access at your hotel (the larger ones); today, more and more public internet areas are sprouting up around Cuba. You have to buy a card to connect to the system and the fee is about 1 USD (1 CUC) per hour.

Once took off and the flight was steady, I was finally aware of the fact that I am entering a different world. There were two kinds of juices on the flight the box says “product de Cuba”. I was looking at the juice box and I believed I was not the only one doing so. I chose the pear juice which was a bit thick and too sweet….

Havana Driving 1Anyway, once I landed and I got out of the custom, it was horrendous… The airport hall was packed with people and queues everywhere. It took me more than almost 2 hours to go through luggage claim and got my Cuban Pesos; and oh yes, my mobile roaming coverage covers Cuba but welcome to the world of no 3G roaming J~ at 9 pm, I was exhausted, starved and pretty much gross, I pushed my belongings to the taxi stand and mid-way, an old man stopped me and asked “Taxi?”… Before I could compose myself and bargain, he grabbed my trolley and pushed my luggage towards the darkness. I followed suit and just when I was about to wonder “is it safe?”, I gasped in amazement as the taxi driver stopped in the deserted car park with his vintage cab. I admired the car for a second (for something that I have never seen), and didn’t even know how to open the car door.

One of the living fossils walking on the road… well, I could never drive a stick, my tour guide friend arranged this vintage car to take me around the Miramar district…

Looking outside from the hotel. The dome of the Capitol was right @ front from my room. The other side is the retro cityscape.
Looking outside the hotel. The dome of the Capitol was right @ in front of my room. The other side is the retro cityscape.

Havana’s retro vibe

When Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba after the revolutions in 1959, American cars and parts were prevented from importing to the country. As a result, for the last almost 60 years, Cubans have played the role of Doctor Frankenstein, tinkling and repairing their old Fords, Chryslers, or Chevrolets, passed it down generations to generate to keep their American cars alive. Some drivers even painted and put a sticker of “1953”, “56”, “59” on their vintage cars! (And yes, you could find some modern cars on the road, even buses imported from China)

IMG_6934It turned out the experience was special. The taxi was rather small and it could only fit one of my many giant pieces of luggage, and the rest of us were crammed into the car while instinctively I was reaching for the safety belt (not that it had any belt), the taxi driver waved and said “—eh”, and there we went. Rolling down the car window we were heading to the city. Everything looks different, even the sound of the engine was different. It was like I took the time machine and I was not looking at a vintage car in a museum or gallery, I was, actually sitting in a vintage car and using it as transportation…

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Behind me stood the National Capitol – a landmark in the city and ironically, a replica of the Capitol in Washington D.C.

The driver and I started talking with a limited English vocabulary. He started with some local travel information to global news. I found it impressive since the driver seemed to catch up with the global issues pretty well, from Sony Pictures / North Korea dispute to occupying Central in Hong Kong (at that time). Although they have their own “Truman Show” in the communism, they are very well aware of what’s happening “Out There”~

… It continues (Back to 1953.. the Next Day)

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4 comments

    1. Yes but just for a little bit. If you are confident with your driving skills, I am sure they are more than welcome for you to drive. 👌🏻😊👍🏻

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