A field guide to traveling to Cuba, written by naive college students for naive college students, mostly as exposition.
Without infringing on copyrights too much, the introduction to the Havana chapter of the Cuba edition of the Lonely Planet Travel Guide goes a little something like this: “Close your eyes… imagine… Waves crashing against… a young couple… harmonizing… across… the smell of diesel fumes and… Hemingway beards… No one could have invented… the… damned… swashbuckling… seduction.” The guide’s authors’ eloquent prose captures to a tee the exact feeling I got from being there, and in the paragraphs that follow, I hope to convey this feeling to you, the reader. In particular, throughout this post I hope to provide an accurate and complete account of my experience traveling to Havana, Cuba as a plucky, naive college student, in the hopes that other plucky, naive college students will find it helpful and informative. The first part of this post will be predominantly informational for other people traveling, while the second part will be a narrative of what we actually did while there.
Here are some bullet points:
Back in January, I went to interview for a research lab in upstate New York (which is unbearably, bitingly cold). It was pretty cool, but the major outcome was that I ended up with an $800 travel voucher for Delta Airlines for taking a slightly later flight than the scheduled one. I’d been thinking about going to Cuba since the embargo was (more or less) lifted, and it turned out that two flights between Atlanta and Havana on Delta cost almost exactly $800. It is cool to think about being able to go somewhere that was closed off all through my parents’ lifetime. It’s probably a bit similar to if my kid were to go to North Korea, if North Korea were sunny, had nice beaches and rum, and all of a sudden decided to market itself to college students on Spring Break.
Fast forward a month and some insightful, reasoned back-and-forth with my girlfriend regarding the destination’s pros and cons, and the tickets were ours. $400 is a bit expensive for flights from Atlanta to Havana normally, and budget airlines like Spirit can run closer to $150 to $200, presumably less during less-desirable times of the year (the times when people like me aren’t trying to travel there). However, seeing as how the fine folks at Delta Airlines were practically begging me for my business, I could hardly refuse, and what’s more, I am always amenable to supporting Atlanta institutions.
I booked the tickets and an AirBnb about a month in advance. It is probably a good idea to do this earlier, but then your back-and-forth may not be as reasoned as you might hope. The best deal I found on AirBnb was in the neighborhood of Vedado for $50 a night. Others can often be cheaper, but bear in mind two things; first, Cuba doesn’t have ubiquitous Internet like in the United States (more on that later), so it can be very hard for someone to put their house online, and second, every American and their mother wants to visit right now. Actually, bear in mind a third thing, which is that the government regulates pretty much everything, and bureaucracy can decrease supply. All around, it’s better to book early or for off-seasons, and don’t expect consistent communication with the host.
So now, the important parts. As of the last three months or so, there are twelve reasons US citizens can travel to Cuba legally. These reasons more or less cover any reason anyone would want to go anywhere, except for “to bum around on the beach and drink myself silly,” so this should definitely not be something that prevents you from going. Once you buy a ticket, you buy the visa right before boarding the flight; airlines sell them to you at the gate. Delta sold us ours for $50 each, although apparently Spirit sells them for $100. As far as confirming your reason for going, it just involves signing a piece of paper. The Delta representative during our flight just took it and added it to the bottom of a stack. The picture below shows the form we signed; our reason for travel was “People-to-People Exchange,” which is the most broad reason, and if you are staying in an AirBnb, is probably the reason you should choose. The confirmation number at the bottom is just a number on the plane ticket.
Customs was very quick, there wasn’t anyone in line when we arrived. They took a picture of me and stamped my passport, then had me walk through a metal detector. They didn’t ask me any questions about the purpose of my visit. Interestingly, the female employees at the airport all wore short skirts and tights, which was a bit strange coming from the US. It reminded me of 60’s-era airline attendants. The international terminal in Atlanta is much nicer than the domestic terminal because it’s the first impression a foreign traveler has when they visit; I imagine the chosen uniform was for a similar reason.
Coming out of the gate, there was a huge crowd of people. It was a little intimidating. Everyone was offering cab rides. The first thing that struck me after leaving the airport was the cars; tons of old-school American cars that you wouldn’t think would still run. The engines on most of them have a healthy purr, the way a forest fire has a pleasant oak musk. Talking to cab drivers later, we found it is typical for people to inherit their cabs from their parents and grandparents. They looked pretty spectacular though.
We changed money at the airport and got about 400 Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUC. One CUC is 25 CUP, which is another type of peso in Cuba. For future reference, I’ll use a dollar sign to represent CUC, since we never used CUP; the Cuban government tries to tie . A cab from the airport to our AirBnb in Vedado was $30 (meaning 30 CUC). The driver was very friendly, and took us through the Plaza de la Revolución.
In Cuba, there are a lot of casa particulars all over. These are basically bed-and-breakfasts, and are registered through the government. AirBnb is basically a way for travelers (predominantly Americans) to book a stay at a casa particular. Our hosts, Dayana and Matyas, were awesome. Dayana wrote our names down in a registry booklet and sent our names and passport numbers to the government. Dayana and Matyas’ house is in Vedado, which is a quieter, somewhat wealthier neighborhood that is walking distance to the big hotels and resorts near the sea. Getting around anywhere is pretty easy by cab though. Matyas is Dutch, and Dayana is Cuban. Dayana’s parents take care of the house while she and Matyas aren’t there, and they were also very friendly, although they spoke no English, which made for some logistical issues.
It helped a lot that both of us spoke some Spanish, and made it much more comfortable getting around, but it wasn’t necessary, depending on where you go. If someone came up to us speaking English, they were typically a scammer. I mean, we were guests in their country, so it would be pretty strange to expect other people to speak our language. We typically made up for the areas where our language skills were lacking by gesturing or using other types of communication.
Cuba punishes crimes very severely, and many of the Cuban people we talked to liked to bring this up, because it means that there is very little crime. You can get into any cab off the street without worrying about anything. No one carries a gun. In this way, scams tend to be very pleasant.
Before going, though, it is worth figuring out your philosophy on poverty and giving money. The average Cuban monthly salary is $20, which can be about what you’d pay for a meal in Habana Vieja. It can be a bit depressing to look at the money you spend on vacation in these units. Our AirBnb, for example, cost over a year’s salary for four nights. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to pay a month’s salary as a tip. Wages were brought up many times by people asking for money.
Far be it from me to provide concrete answers to difficult philosophical questions. There are certainly support systems in place which make it possible to live on such a small amount (since the country is communist) so saying “20$ a month” is not as bad as the same salary in the United States. However, tipping your waiter goes a long, long way.
I didn’t use Internet while we were there, but my girlfriend wanted to let her parents know we’d arrived alright, so we got an Internet card. There are various locations with Internet connections, and they can usually be identified by people trying to sell you Internet cards. We paid $3 for a card, although they should usually be $1.50 (the person who sold them to us added his own markup). One card provides an hour of Internet service. It wasn’t very reliable (you couldn’t stream media), but it worked well enough for our purposes (we used Google Hangouts to send a text; presumably the same method would work for calling).
We left for the airport at 10:30 to catch an 2:30 flight, because we were worried lines would be really backed up or we might face other difficulties. They weren’t at all, so we sat in the airport and read our respective books until it came time to board. The cab to the airport cost $25. In the airport lobby, there was a speaker whose sole purpose (it seemed) was to emit awful, high-pitched squeaks at odd intervals, effectively making it horribly uncomfortable to sit in most places. I have no idea why it was there. If anyone knows what the point of that speaker is, I would love to know. We got chicken and fries in the airport lobby for about $6 per plate (on the expensive side, but not a horrible way to spend money). The entire time we were eating we were interrupted by awful, high-pitched squeaks which no one else seemed to be able to hear. Before I located the device on the wall I thought it was an older person playing a practical joke with an iPhone app.
We had read online elsewhere that there was a $25 exit fee for each of us, but we weren’t charged. It may have been that the airline already paid it, or that the fee doesn’t apply anymore.
It was surprisingly easy to get through customs, significantly faster (oddly) than returning from Canada. The agent asked a few questions, like, “were we traveling there for business or vacation,” but being the quick-on-our-feet thinkers we are, we didn’t fall for it and told him we were coming back from a people-to-people exchange. Otherwise, they didn’t ask anything a normal customs officer wouldn’t ask.
We landed in Cuba around 1:00. Going through customs was pretty easy (see above). Our AirBnb host, Matyas, was at work when we arrived, but we were greeted by his wife, Dayana. Dayana gave us keys to the apartment and we dropped our stuff off. She also gave us some recommendations on things to do. The AirBnb was close to John Lennon Park, so-named because of a statue of John Lennon, and misleadingly similar to Lenin Park. We took a nap and then walked over there and ate at a nearby restaurant. There were a ton of kids in soccer jerseys, specifically Barcelona jerseys. We found that most of the “fancy” cars that we saw were actually taxis; typically, the other cars on the road (and there weren’t many) were personally-owned. Many of them were Ladas.
We also walked over to the Plaza de la Revolución, which we’d seen coming from the airport. The security guard wouldn’t let us take pictures of the giant statue of Jose Marti form any angle except straight-on, which reminded me of how I’ve read North Korea is. The Plaza is also bordered by large images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Between Sunday and Monday we slept for 14 hours, because we were really tired and there weren’t any windows in our room. We were woken up at various times throughout the night alternatively by dogs, roosters and cars (earplugs would have been a good idea). Dayana made a really good breakfast of pineapple, papaya, espresso, eggs, toast, and papaya juice. We talked to a bike rental store, which was really just a back room in someone’s house, but they didn’t have any bikes to rent us.
We walked back over to John Lennon Park. I sat on a bench which had wet paint on it, because I didn’t understand what the people telling me not to do that were saying. Someone in the park was selling internet cards so we bought one to tell Wei Wei’s parents that we were alright. We had to try 3 or 4 times to connect, because it was very spotty.
We walked to Miramar, which is where all the hotels are. The waterfront is really nice, and there weren’t just tourists walking along it.
We went into a grocery store inside a shopping mall where most of the patrons were Cubans rather than tourists. The lines were extremely slow; we stood in line for probably 30 minutes. Waiting a while for things was a common theme. We got a bottle of sparkling water to drink as we walked. There was also a Nike outlet inside the mall, which was interesting.
We got a cab to Habana Vieja, which is the “tourist” part of Havana. It cost $8 for about 15 minutes. The cab was an old VW Bug. It dropped us off in the Parque Central, and we walked over to El Floridita, which is mostly known as the bar that Hemmingway liked to sit in and drink Daiquiris. It was really crowded so we didn’t order anything. Instead, we went to the Museo de la Revolución, which was really incredible. It had the original bullet holes from when revolutionary troops stormed in and took over.
We walked around the walls on the coast and were confronted by some street musicians. We walked down the waterfront some more and ended up off the map, near the house where Jose Marti was born. There were artist galleries all around as well. We got dinner at a very tourist restaurant called Cafe Paris. Food took about an hour and a half.
We went back to our AirBnb and drank rum with Dayana, Matyas and Carlos (Dayana’s brother). We talked a lot and ended up getting Daiquiris at a nearby place called Dulce Habana. They provided some interesting perspectives on immigration from Cuba to the United States, and how Cubans view Americans. Apparently the narrative supported by Castro is that Americans aren’t responsible for the actions of their government, so while the American government is evil, the American people are alright.
We ate at a restaurant near John Lennon Park. There’s a nightclub near the park called The Yellow Submarine, but it wasn’t open when we went by. We took a cab from Vedado to Habana Vieja for $5 and walked around. Wei Wei bought a post card from a gift shop for her collection.
We decided to get on a tour bus around Havana, which costed $10 each but lasted about 3 hours. It went by the Russian Embassy, Aquarium, a bunch of resorts, and a huge cemetery.We got espresso at a restaurant outside the Museo de la Revolución.
We took the Lancha Casablanca (Ferry) to the other side of the bay. It was the best way to get to the Cristo de la Habana. The ferry didn’t have doors, so people stood right on the edge next to the water.
The view from the top of the hill with the Cristo de la Habana was spectacular. Unlike most cities I’ve visited, Havana isn’t very bright, so you can see the stars much more easily. We took the ferry back across the bay and then took a cab to Chinatown.
Havana’s Chinatown hardly has any Asian people. Someone we talked to said that they all emmigrated a few years ago, but we didn’t figure out why. We ate at a restaurant called Tien Tan, which was very strange. There were cats walking all over the place, and the waitress was wearing a Qipao. The menu also had to be double-translated, so it had it’s fair share of amusing typos. The food was very good though, and a break from the fried food we’d been eating.
We also stumbled upon the University of Havana’s Confucius Institute, although it was closed. Our Taxi home costed $5.
We woke up early because we wanted to get over to Jaimanitas, a city which is about 30 minutes outside Vedado. There was a strange rooster whose crowing sounded like barking, which had kept us up the night before. According to Matyas, cockfighting is fairly popular, but underground.
We took a cab to Jaimanitas for $10. The driver picked up and dropped off other people while we were going there, a practice of being a “share taxi,” although this practice was pretty uncommon while we were there because many cab drivers were on strike.
Jaimanitas is home to Casa Fuster, which is home to Jose Fuster, and it is really extraordinary. It is a whole house decorated with murals. I took some panoramas which are available in the attached photo album; these are probably the best way to view the house.
Afterwards I got Ropa Vieja from a cafeteria in Jaimanitas. We took a cab to Copellia, which is a pretty famous ice cream place. We made the fatal mistake of going in the “tourist” line, which took us to a dingy back room.
The highlight of the trip for me was what happened when we walked over to the University of Havana, so I’ll take some time to write about it in greater detail. To preface this, partially to avoid sounding extremely naive, I should say we had been approached with scams previously, and they were very obvious. One person came and complemented my shirt, then invited us to eat with him and his wife. Typically they’re pretty obvious and easy to spot; you just have to assume that random people on the street aren’t going to speak English and be nice to you out of nowhere.
There are scam craftsmen, and scam artists. Jose and Luiz were the latter, if they were not actually students. We were reading a sign in the University near two men, Jose and Luiz, who said they were students (and looked like they could probably have been students). We started to talk to them about a bunch of stuff; the University, their academic program, student life and things to do near the University, what brands of cigars and rum to buy. We talked for about twenty minutes, and said we were interested in going to one of the restaurants they had suggested earlier. So far, we thought they were just friendly students.
Cut to the restaurant, where we sat, ate, talked and drank Negron for about an hour and a half. The restaurant was, in fact, right near the University. They gave a lot of thoughts on racism in Cuba and how life changed for people after the revolution, and about capitalism verses communism. This is where the story started to get hazy. First, Luiz said that he could get a good deal on cigars through the student center, and after talking about it a bit, he went off to get a box. He came back with a box but no receipt, but we sort of psychologically shrugged it off. Next, we found out that each glass of Negron was costing about $4, which is a lot more expensive than you’d expect. We were planning on buying theirs to thank them for their hospitality. Right before we were about to part ways, after Wei Wei went to use the bathroom, Jose approached me and asked for money. It really caught me off guard. Wei Wei was the one holding onto the money, so we waited for her to get back. Unfortunately we’d spent all the money we’d brought with us on cigars and alcohol, so we gave him a Canadian 10 dollar bill.
Even at that point we still didn’t think we’d been had. It was only after we left that we started to piece things together. Even now, my gut says they were just friendly students. One way to figure out might be to smoke one of the cigars and see if it’s fake, but I don’t have a good reference for what a fake cigar would be like; for the time being, they remain Schrodinger’s cigars.
In the end, if they were scammers, they were (in my naive opinion) masters of their craft. Either way, we had a great conversation and learned a lot.
Cuba was a load of fun, and definitely a learning experience. It was very interesting to contrast this experience with what I’ve read and learned about Cuba from other sources. The face of the country that I was exposed to as a passer-though was very beautiful, but I go the sense from interacting with people and learning about their day-to-day lives that there were many downsides to living in the country as well. All around, it was a fascinating, unusual, exciting and informative experience, one that I would gladly repeat and strongly endorse.