Caribbean · Culture · Education · History · Tourist · transportation · Travel Philosophy · Travel Planning · Travel Tips & Skills

Bienvenido a Havana: Cuba at First Glance

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With passports, visas, and guidebook in hand, Rick and I are ready for some Cuban adventures.

Weary from 14 hours of travel (in the middle seat of three different airplanes from Seattle to Mexico City to Havana), my body longed for a simple bed to sleep in, but my mind was awhirl with anticipation of a trip of a lifetime. Rick, his son Andy, his daughter Jackie, and I were Cuba-bound, and we were eager to explore this Communist island-nation that none of us had ever been to.

The trip was several months in the planning. We did everything by the book: filling out the proper documents for our “General License”, paying for our Mexico-Cuba plane tickets through the appropriate channels, arranging our casas particulares (private bed & breakfasts) through legitimate companies (we used Point2Cuba and AirBnB), and arranging much of our sight-seeing and educational travel through the Center for Global Education and their Cuba affiliate, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center. And we prepared ourselves well with smart guidebooks and educational materials like documentaries and books on Cuban history that provided perspectives we hadn’t been accustomed to hearing as Americans (You’ll find a list of some of our most-appreciated resources following this article).

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Jackie and Andy travel to their second communist country in 6 months. You can learn all about their earlier adventures in Vietnam on Rick’s website at http://blog.ricksteves.com/jackie/

Seemingly with only the stars of an 11pm sky to illuminate the airport runway, our plane landed smoothly on the nearly pitch black Havana tarmac. Right away, I knew that everything from here on out would be much different that what we were accustomed to in the States.

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The United States requires all U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba to choose one of 12 approved General Licenses for legal entry. We each legitimately chose “Professional Research.”

Passing through customs put me a little on edge—not because it should have but because my inner worrywart reared its ugly head. Did I fill out the paperwork right? Did my Cuban visa that I got at the Mexico City airport fall out of my passport? Should Rick and I go to the customs agent together or as individuals? Do I have proof that I’m really traveling to Cuba for “Professional Research” should they grill me about that? So many questions swirled in my brain. Even after the agent took my sweaty-faced picture (dripping with the tropical humidity) to make sure the Cuban government officially knew I was here and what I’d be doing, and even after he waved me through with a smile and an adiós, I could feel my heart pulse and seize until Rick was waved through, too, and reached for my hand.

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Our guide Rey greets Rick when we arrive at the Havana airport.

It was relief to be met by Rey, our guide and representative from the MLK Center. His wide, toothy smile, and his warm, sincere welcome were comforting. Don’t get me wrong–I wasn’t scared or truly nervous about being here, but there was so much I didn’t know and was ignorant of regarding Cuba. I needed reassurance that all was and would be well. As I would learn quickly as the trip progressed, this is a safe, friendly, engaging, and thought-provoking place to visit.

 

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Visitors to Cuba wait in long lines to change their money to Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUC.

With Rey’s help, we did what all tourists need to do when first getting to Cuba: change money. We came prepared with a mix of large and small bills (in hindsight, we should have had more of the small ones) and accepted the notion of waiting and waiting and waiting in line—something most tourists to Cuba need to get used to and something that all Cubans live with on a daily basis.

Knowing how tired we were from our day’s journey, Rey helped us get to our casa particular in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, so we could get a full night’s rest before hitting the ground the next morning.

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Ready to go at 8am, Rey picks us up at our casa particular in an American
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A stoic statue of Cuba poet and activist José Marti points accusingly at the U.S. Embassy, about 300 yards that-a-way.

Sooner than we thought, 8 am had sprung on us, and Rey showed up with our personal American Classic Car/Cuban taxi for the day. With daylight rather than middle-of-the-night darkness as our backdrop, the 15-minute ride into the old town, or Havana Vieja, was the perfect “Cuba for Beginners” visual introduction into this Caribbean port town. Imposing statues, gas stations, cotton candy-colored buildings, smiling locals, and the myriad forms of transportation that lined and traversed the main drag (a waterfront roadway-esplanade-seawall called the Malecón) provided ample eye-catching targets for our cameras.

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Smiling habaneras ride by cotton candy-colored buildings along the Malecón.
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Structures from the Spanish colonial era are ubiquitous in Havana.

Sightseeing Old Havana on foot, we explored the most touristy part of the city. From its Spanish colonial beginnings to contemporary public art, history and culture permeated every space. Luckily for us, the cruise ship travelers had not yet arrived that day, so we toured the area in relative, if temporary, peace and learned about the Then and Now of religion in Cuba, wages and social benefits, Hemingway’s haunts, and habaneros or Havana locals.

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Now open to visitors and worshippers, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary stands proudly in the center of Havana Vieja.

Despite Fidel Castro’s revolutionary ideal of allowing for “freedom of religion,” in actuality, religion had, up until recent years, been strongly restricted. Catholicism in particular—which was generally seen as supporting the oppressive dictatorial, elite-class, U.S.-supported government that was run by General Fulgencio Batista and was overthrown by Castro and his (generally) working-class, poorer, non-white Hispanic (read as: Afro-Cuban or mulatto) comrades—took the brunt of the limitations. Churches had been closed, displays of religion in public had been forbidden, and even celebrating Christmas was a no-no. But now, under the leadership of Fidel’s brother Raúl and with the visit of three popes since 1998 (first by Pope John Paul II, then Pope Benedict and most recently by Pope Francis), Cuba has seen an easing of religious restrictions and a growing population of practicing Catholics.

 

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Havana children pal around outside of their school.

Rey reminded us that the average monthly salary for Cubans is 30 pesos or the equivalent of $30 US. He also gently reminded us that homelessness is essentially non-existent and housing is highly subsidized (although the quality, safety, and comfort level vary greatly within the society). Healthcare is free and available to everyone, including twice yearly house calls (but access to medicines and medical equipment are severely limited because of the strict U.S.-enforced embargo). Education from ages 6-16 is free and compulsory and is free through PhD level to anyone who wishes to pursue that route (Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.7%).

 

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This employee awaits her next customer to dole out their portion of eggs.

And no one goes without food. Everyone is given a libreta or ration card that provides $2 worth of food each month (about 12% of the true cash value). This “food basket”, supplied by state-run food stores, provides every Cuban with half a bottle of cooking oil, small rations of cooking gas, white and brown sugar, as well as spaghetti. They also receive some eggs, beans, chicken or fish, along with one piece of bread per day, and seven pounds of rice. There are special provisions for children, diabetics, special occasion items like birthday cakes or rum and beer for weddings, in addition to school uniforms and supplies. Cubans who can afford it supplement their diet with food purchased from local vendors, farmers markets or supermarkets, but in Cuba it’s said, “No one can live on the booklet, but there are many who cannot live without it.”

 

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On the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, the tourists all flock to same cafe.
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El Floridity’s claims to fame: Ernest Hemingway and daiquiris.

As we passed by a tourist-crowded café on the popular Plaza Vieja, I wondered how many tourists were getting as deep of a look at Cuban society during the length of their trip as we were getting in these first few hours. And popping into the hotel where Ernest Hemingway stayed and bar where he drank his supposedly “favorite” daiquiris in Havana (both places were packed with tourists), I wondered if this was really what enchanted most visitors.

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These two hardworking ladies took time to chat in Spanish and pose for this grateful American visitor.
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Wherever we went, locals gave us all a warm welcome.

The people we met around town were, without exception, friendly and curious about us. As translator for our family, it was a joy to be speaking Spanish again, and I found myself adapting to the Cuban tendency towards quick words and dropped letters and syllables. Locals asked things like “¿D(e) (d)ónde so(n) u(s)tede(s)?” (Where are you from?) “¿Po(r) qué ha(n) veni(d)o a Cuba?” (Why did we come to Cuba?) They all wanted to know. Answers of “We’re from America” and “We want to learn about your history, your culture, and your people” were met with exclamations of joyful surprise and gleeful welcome. These individuals enchanted us, each in their own unique way, and they enlivened us to meet more of their compatriots.

 

For more photos of our first day in Cuba, click on the tiles below:

 

Stay tuned for more reports from Cuba.

And if you’re interested to visiting our Caribbean neighbors, consider these resources:

BOOKS
Lonely Planet Cuba
Cuba for the Misinformed: Facts from the Forbidden Island by Mick Winter

Real Havana: Explore Cuba Like a Local and Save by Mario Rizzi

Cuba as Never Before: The Absolutely Positively Unauthorized Guide by Louis Nevaer

NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLES

http://nyti.ms/1T02eJa

DOCUMENTARIES/FILMS

Fidel: The Untold Story directed by Estela Bravo (Netflix)

Che starring Benicio del Toro and directed by Steven Soderbergh (Netflix)

Curtain of Water by Joe Guerrero (PBS)

The Fidel Castro Tapes (PBS)

BITE-SIZE INFO

Pre-Castro Cuba, Castro and the Cold War

Cuban Literacy Movement

Travels to Real Cuba (It’s in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, but the visuals are well worth your while)

12 thoughts on “Bienvenido a Havana: Cuba at First Glance

  1. this is awesome – my former in-laws came to America during the Mariela in 1980’s – with a prisoner per person to give their 13 year old son a better life – left behind 2 of their adult daughters & families –

  2. Great start! Excited to read more and see your photos Trish! I just saw the movie, “Viva” set in Havana. Highly recommended! (Not sure if it is available yet but one to watch for!) Cheers! Leslie

  3. I really want to go to Cuba but wonder about all the incidentals of what’s required to get there. Thanks for the information and making it seem less difficult. I’m excited to read what’s next!

  4. As a Florida resident and having lived in the Florida Keys for 10 years, Cuban heritage is very much a part of everyday life. In the Keys many Cuban families display the boats they arrived here in as yard sculpture. Every Cuban I have known has maintained their pride in their homeland and made sure that each generation after shared that pride. I think that says a lot about the Cuban people and the love of their homeland. And you will love the food!!

  5. Trish,
    I enjoyed reading your comments about Cuba as I’ve also thought about making a visit there in the near future. Your flights sound dreadful and I can appreciate how tiring they were (especially being stuck in the middle seat!).
    If you ever decide to make another visit to Cuba, you may want to look into flights from Canadian airports, as there are many easy flights available in the winter. From Seattle you’re only about a one hour flight from three gateway cities that offer flights to Cuba – Vancouver, Calgary and Kelowna. You could also transit via Toronto, which might be the quickest and easiest option – about 4.5 hours to Toronto and about 3.5 hours from there to Havana.

  6. Trish,

    I spoke with you today (Saturday Feb 6) after Rick’s talk on Cuba.

    I asked if you could give me the names and contact information of the B and B’s you stayed in while you were in Cuba.

    I would really appreciate that information as I am preparing our trip for March.

    Thank you for the assistance,

      1. Trish,

        Thank you for posting the details about the places where you stayed while in Cuba.

        I found it very helpful especially with the specific information.

  7. Enjoyed your pictures and your post very much. Can you please tell me the names of the places you stayed? Thank you. We are going in April, and I know Rick said you really liked three of the four places you stayed. I would like to check them out.

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