We just returned from a 2 week Cuban vacation. I wanted to see Cuba before the Americans flooded there and changed the ‘real’ Cuba. It didn’t take long before we realized that a few more tourists were not going to change the island. That will take decades at best.
We asked our first taxi driver from the airport about the beautiful old American cars. He doesn’t believe that most Cubans would sell their prized possessions since they are a source of personal pride and most are taxi drivers and need their car to work. I was surprised at the number of these gorgeous autos. – probably 40% or more of all cars on the roads. Old Russian cars are the second largest number but they are just boxy transportation that can’t compare to an Edsel, Jaguar or Fairlane that’s more than half a century old.
We expected to rent a car. Since we couldn’t hold a car with our US credit cards, we reserved one once we got to Havana. But when we went to take care of the paperwork, there were no cars available. No problem as they must have a bus system comparable to Panama. Not even close. All seats going south and east were sold. Enter the car taxi system. For just a few dollars more we got an old Dodge and a driver to take us to our next destination. Whoop! We also got a private taxi for our following destination as Cuba apparently doesn’t add buses for popular routes. The private taxis were trip savers for us.
Cuba is unbearably hot. Even the top hotels rarely had air in their bars and lobbies. We went through water like crazy. We called their only choice of water C-14, in memory of a canal that was the southern border between our former home in Coral Springs and the city to the south, Tamarac. The water was foul! In 2 weeks, we still couldn’t get over the nasty liquid they called agua. That said, it was a far cry better than drinking from the tap!In 2 weeks, we still couldn’t get over the nasty liquid they called agua. That said, it was a far cry better than drinking from the tap! There was only one brand so if you got water, it tasted like it came from someplace bad. The bottles said the water was collected at “the source” but the source was obviously a secret. There was no indication where the ‘source’ was. We think we found it, however.
Havana is a lively place with music in every café, bar and street corner. Cuban music uses a lot of big band instruments. If there wasn’t a nearby band, the boom boxes blared music from homes and streets. One night there was a power outage and the residents didn’t miss a moment to move outdoors with music. I found it odd that the music was strictly Cuban, not Colombian or even popular Cuban singers in the US.
The streets around Havana are in good condition. The streets within Havana, particularly Habana Vieja, are uneven, dirty and filled with garbage. Some are pedestrian-only walkways but still, in not great condition. In Habana Centro they are in the middle of installing an underground sewage system. It will be great when it’s done but now it’s a mess and it is really smelly.
Our second stop was Playa Giron, more commonly known as the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion. We went to the museum. When I used to teach American History, we barely touched on the event in class, usually only commenting about it being JFK’s biggest mistake but there was so much more to it in Cuba. It was used as a massive propaganda campaign against the American Imperialists. The US played right into Castro’s hands. We stayed at Casa Particular Norma and we asked Norma about the invasion. She told us that she was just a kid but her house was blown up by the Americans. We went scuba diving in the Bay and it was beautiful. No fishing is allowed and it’s a short walkout dive on white sand. It looks like an aquarium the water is so clear and filled with reef fish. Apparently, Fidel Castro has a secret hideaway on an island not far from the Bay of Pigs.
Casa Particulars are private homes that are allowed by the Cuban government to rent rooms to travelers. Many are available on AirBnB.com. The homeowner keeps half of the rent which is usually about $40 a night. Any extra charges, for breakfast, dinner, drinks etc. stays with the homeowners. It’s a wonderful way to get money directly into the hands of the Cuban people. All regular hotels are owned and operated by the government and employees make a small salary. But all in all, people are poor.
We went to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, both smaller than Havana, cleaner and much more picturesque. Again we stayed at Casa Particulars and they were a more homey experience. The internet hotspot was easy to find in Trinidad (L). The Cienfuegos skyline (R).
Shopping is unusual. Tourist shops carry the traditional t-shirts, ashtrays, and other tchotchkes. Markets are another matter. There were more empty shelves than shelves with merchandise. Typical stock was usually oil, powdered milk, cartons of juice and rum. Lots and lots of rum. Not lots of anything else. The places we stayed had to keep meticulous records of all guests and they received additional food allotments based on that number. In the private community, people get food allotments based on number in household. People with children get extra juice and milk. But we saw more than one child with extremely bowed legs looking much like extreme calcium deficiency. We never saw a grocery store.
Major hotels have wireless internet for about $4-5 an hour. But locals and cheap tourist go outside areas around those big hotels or a large park. You looked for a bunch of people staring at their phones and then find guy that seems li
ke he’s selling crack. From him, you buy 1 hour’s worth of internet for $2-3. However, even with wifi, the phone portion of WhatsApp and Facebook would not connect. Most Cubans don’t own a cell phone but some Casa Particulars have desktops with internet access. The wifi hotspot in Havana was easy to spot.
We are glad we went to Cuba but now I realize that it won’t be changing anytime soon. Much of their transportation still relies on horse and cart. Their internet is basic at best. Electric blackouts are frequent and their water is not safe to drink. People rely on government assistance for even basic needs like juice. Garbage and trash pick-up is a luxury that most do not have. But by an large, Cubans are extremely proud of their country and their government..Castro and Che’s face are painted everywhere but they are also in private home. We saw busts of Lenin and larger that life paintings of Castro and Che in private homes. Private cars often have a likeness or two of the same individuals.