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
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. Now, 20 direct flights (some are even daily) are opened from cities like Miami and Los Angeles to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. 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 of 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.
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 to 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….
Anyway, 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 two hours to go through luggage claim and get my Cuban Pesos; and oh yes, my mobile roaming coverage covers Cuba but welcome to the world of no 3G roaming~ 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…
Staying in Cuba
I stayed at the Mercure Sevilla La Habana and it was a historic European-style hotel with refined and spacious rooms, a rooftop restaurant, and a terrace bar (that had a great view of the city including the Parliament), and an outdoor pool.
It is only located a few blocks away from everything – the Parliament, Old Havana, or Melancon. Every morning I turned on CNN, opened the giant window, and enjoyed the glorious view of the Parliament, countless old buildings, and vintage cars.
These hotels were certainly not listed on hotel.com or booking.com. I had to search for hotel booking websites in Cuba, and those websites usually had about 10-20 hotels in Havana listed. Today, they could be found on booking.com and the price is already doubled.
Cuba’s currency: CUC and CUP
Cuba is the only place in the world that has two official currencies. Peso Cubano (CUP) is the official currency, introduced in 1902. After Cuba’s independence, the country’s economy rely on the US and therefore USD is also widely used in Cuba. After the revolution, most of the money was transferred out of the country that driving the depreciation of CUP. USD was also banned in Cuba as the relationship between the two countries deteriorated.
Later, Cuba lost the much-needed foreign support when USSR disintegrated. To save the country from bankruptcy, the country opened to tourism in 1994. While the government did not want USD to be used in Cuba, the government issued a convertible currency, Peso Cubano Convertible (CUC), and 1 CUC equals 25 CUP (~ 1 USD). Sadly, the government opened privately owned businesses in 2010, which accelerated the gap between the rich and the poor, when CUP depreciated hugely, professionals, and civil servants are earning CUP; hotels, restaurants, and taxi drivers are earning CUC. The monthly salary of a civil servant is about 500 to 700 CUP, a taxi driver is about 500 CUC (a 25 times difference!) There have been discussions to get rid of the duo-currency policy, Cuba was still at the same spot.
Now, tourists are a walking ATM – hotels, restaurants, and taxis charges CUC; but if you are in the know and head to the local stores that charge CUP, a cup of juice could be as low as 3 to 5 CUP, as compared to those tourist restaurants, which charges 3 to 5 CUC.
Havana’s retro vibe
When Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba after the revolutions in 1959, American cars and parts were prevented from importing into 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”, and “59” on their vintage cars! (And yes, you could find some modern cars on the road, even buses imported from China)
It 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…
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”~
… The next day continues (Back to 1953: Exploring Havana’s Old City Center and the Four Plazas)